It’s Not Just Ferguson

It’s Not Just Ferguson August 13, 2014

When a toaster keeps producing burnt toast, we don’t blame the bread—we fix the toaster.  When a dishwasher won’t wash the dishes, we don’t blame the dishes—we fix the dishwasher.

Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford (a young man in L.A. yesterday).  All African-American.  All unarmed.  And all dead.  The drum beat goes on.

In 2012, police, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extra-judicially killed at least 313 African-Americans.  In other words, at least every 28 hours, an African-American person was killed by someone purporting to uphold justice, but acting outside the legal process.

In a country where African-Americans and white people use and sell drugs at about the same rates, African-Americans are about 3 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and then to receive significantly longer sentences, compared to white people.  This difference in arrests and sentencing means that African-Americans make up only 13.1% of the US population, but 40% of the prison population.

In Ferguson, Missouri, African-Americans make up 67% of the population, but 5.7% of the police department.  Journalist Zoe Carpenter says, in “The Nation,” that, “in 2013, 92% of searches and 86% of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people.”  She goes on, “The skewed numbers don’t correspond at all to the levels of crime.  While one three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, only one in five blacks had contraband.”

In 2014, open-carry white people can hang out at Chipotle with automatic weapons, but Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, can have his hands in the air, saying, “Don’t shoot,” and he will still end up dead—one is seen as a threat, one is not.

Our country promises liberty and justice for all.  But we’re failing that standard.  It’s not one person, or one event.  It’s not even one police department, or one city.  We’re all part of it–my prayers tonight are with and for everyone in Ferguson, Missouri.  For peace and strength in the hearts of police officers, community leaders, clergy and teachers, mothers and fathers, children and teens.  This isn’t about who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy–I’ve talked with enough police officers to know how stressful their jobs can be, and how the stories of how they help in the neighborhoods don’t make the news.  It’s about a statistically predictable pattern.  About a system across the country that’s been producing injustice: different outcomes for the same behavior, depending on the color of your skin.

This is hard for a white person to see.  Because, for people who look like me, things seem to work fine.  It’s my lived experience that the system is working, that things are fair, and that the difference is in individual behavior.  But we know that our individual experience of things is not the same thing as the facts of the world.  That’s why it’s important to back up and look at the patterns, the outcomes, that the system produces like clockwork.

As protests in Ferguson, Missouri go on tonight, a lot of my white brothers and sisters are focused on how, in the short-term, to restore order.  But the real question is how, in the long-term, to restore justice.

Trying to listen here.  Trying to learn.  Trying to see how I, and we, might help our country live up to its promise.

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