Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

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Location: North Carolina, United States

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ferguson and the Myth of a Post-Racial America


“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” he said. “I help people. That’s my job.”

In the wake of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision to acquit Officer Darren Wilson, who faced a charge of police brutality for the killing of Michael Brown, reporters have debated the particulars of the trial, reporting factors that led to the jury’s decision, suggesting possible mistakes in the handling of evidence, and explaining the use of deadly force while in fear of death. It's difficult to understand exactly what happened in the trial itself, but more important is exactly how we, as a nation, watch and react. In the coming years, we will hardly remember these details, as Michael Brown joins a lineage of black people who symbolize something larger, whose names resonate even as we may not remember exactly what happened to them—Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, and, most recently, Trayvon Martin.

And then there are other, more violent names—Laurence Powell, Edward McMellon, and George Zimmermann—that fade into obscurity. These people do not, themselves, take on symbolic proportions. Their declared innocence, however, does: it not only represents the notion of a “tradition in this country to be able to kill innocent black people,” but also, ironically, reaffirms the idea that we inhabit a post-racial America, in which a law enforcement officer can insist in his own trial that racial tensions do not exist in a city with stark racial disparity, even as his description of the deceased reflects the mythical “Negro Beast” that southern presses described a century ago.

The outcome of the trial, in the eyes of some, shows that he is innocent; that they are innocent; that prejudice which leads to death is not something that we need to talk about above-ground, regardless of what poisonous attitudes lie beneath. Some people have used this opportunity to blame the victim, focusing on black-on-black violence and condemning the riots as “not really about injustice,” but rather an excuse to have “a free-for-all of looting, vandalism, and fun.” These criticisms do not just downplay the current focus on race; they actively promote the idea that black people are the problem. (And, keep in mind that black-on-black violence is irrelevant to the issue of police discrimination, and that the rioting, while understandably criticized by both sides, is a historically legitimate tool for achieving social change.)

Distinct from the explicit pushback from conservative commentators is the indifference that characterizes a large portion of the white population; white (and Hispanic) people are less likely to report interest in the Ferguson case. This apathy is at least partly an outcome of the self-segregation observed in white social networks, and another related contributor is the skewed perception of equality in the criminal justice system: after the Michael Brown shooting, 48% of white Americans responded that Blacks and minorities receive equal treatment in the justice system, compared to just 16% of non-white respondents. The same survey also notes one promising shift: in 2014, an additional 20% of young adults recognize that the legal system treats minorities unfairly, compared to 2013.

Things do change, and we have made progress, but now is not the time to stop caring or fighting. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the history of racism that pervades our country, understand that we are still far from achieving equality, and appreciate that our actions and attitudes influence future generations. In Ferguson, shortly after the verdict, a group of residents painted a mural that includes a quote from The Lorax:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”