Ferguson, Race, and Police: What Now?

My friend Sean Murphy was right. According to the Grand Jury of Ferguson, MO, Darren Wilson didn’t do anything wrong, or at least criminal. I don’t like the verdict, but if those are the facts, those are the facts.

My African-American train friend  and I were talking about the case and I asked her about “The Talk” with her daughter. I knew that parents had “The Talk” with their sons about interacting with the police, but I didn’t know if they had it with daughters and she assured me that they did. She spoke about what to do when pulled over and where not to go, because African-Americans “stick out” there.

You know we’re going to make a moral out of the story, right? The news will cover it, and people will write on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll all say what it means. What does this case mean, then, for life in America and whether we’re “post-racial”. Should she stop worrying? Should she tell her daughters not to worry?

I have to ask her, but I don’t think she’s going to go for it. Here’s the problem as we discussed it, with my spin on it somewhat. Most normal White people would not do anything as racist as beat someone up or shoot them simply because they were Black. In fact, most normal White people can’t even imagine doing that. Because they wouldn’t do it, and because they don’t experience it, they have a hard time believing it happens. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It just means that it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there.

Still, every day as a therapist, I hear about actions that no normal person would ever engage in. Incest, rape, and molestation are a lot more common that anyone can imagine. Drug use and robbery and domestic violence and male rape and … the list goes on. Did these things happen, as my clients maintain? In reality, I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I choose to believe them. Why? Because they can’t imagine it happening, either, and they are frequently in shock. I believe them because something happened, because their bodies and their psyches are out-of-whack and they no longer act normally. They have experienced the unimaginable and believing them seems to relieve their misery.

So, Darren Wilson didn’t commit a crime. According to our laws, that’s the fact. Darren Wilson got justice, according to the law. Does that mean that “driving while Black” isn’t a reality? Does it mean that parents don’t have conversations with their children? Does it mean that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t exist? No, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Does it mean that we don’t need to consider what “appropriate force” is again? Does it mean that laws and consequences aren’t used more harshly against Blacks than Whites? No. It doesn’t mean that either.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t believe Blacks anymore — because of Tawana Brawley and now Michael Brown? Like everything else, we have a choice. We can listen to them and believe them and build friendships and trust or refuse to believe them and watch the divide between us widen. Listening and believing leads to healing. Not listening and not believing leads to a colder world and a divided world, and the fear that everybody’s crazy.

I am convinced that we need to reach across color lines in our day to day lives, that we need to listen and believe what we hear — not stupidly or blindly — but with open minds and hearts. If we do that, we will experience the racism which is so hard to imagine. If we see each other as brothers and sisters to start with, we can experience each others’ cultural experiences. Where we experience pain and the unimaginable, then we can become motivated to change things. Where things turn out to be lies, we have enough of a relationship to cope with it or claim the reality without the rest of the world being impacted.

These are our choices. In whatever stories we hear, this should be the process — 1) listen with an open mind 2) get the reality of the situation 3) make decisions based in the reality of the situation. That has happened in the case of Darren Wilson, as far as we know. Let’s make it so for everybody else in America.




15 thoughts on “Ferguson, Race, and Police: What Now?

  1. I essentially agree with everything you noted above. The challenge is to believe that there are all to often cases where racism does still exist, but not to rush to judgment in the instances where there wasn’t necessarily any racial motivation. That is no small feat in a place like Ferguson.

    As I noted to you at the time, all the evidence needed to be weighed, and I am convinced that in this case Officer Wilson (whose life will never be the same by the way) did not commit a crime. While it is true that Brown was unarmed, that doesn’t mean innocent. The evidence suggests that he got into the car and tried to steal the police officers gun. He also beat up the cop and the convenience store owner. There are multiple (African American) witness, plus forensic evidence that supports that this is what happened. The witnesses who said otherwise changed their story after the forensics came out (or most of them did). That means while it is tragic that a young man had to die, it was his decisions – not the officers – that lead to that outcome. It is unlikely that Officer Wilson will be able to remain a cop (at least in that area) and he will likely be vilified even after the verdict.

    Tawana Brawley and the Duke Rape case (to name just two) are as instructive as Rodney King. Cases of Police Brutality exist, but too often young black men are doing nothing to help their own situation and cases of false accusations are doing nothing to help the dialog.

    Officer Wilson was essentially assaulted by the media and even you noted being “disappointed” with the verdict? Why disappointed if the evidence didn’t support that he did anything wrong? Are we disappointed because it would have assuaged some passed guilt for other sins? Why should an innocent police officer have to support that burden? I am neither disappointed nor elated with the outcome. I do that think justice was served.

    White guilt is a dangerous thing because it can sometimes lead to the soft racism of low expectations. I read a lot of black political commentators and economists who reject the idea that young men of color are being held down by systemic racism. They do not however reject the idea that racism still exists, and we would be foolish to believe that it doesn’t either. But there is a difference between the white guilt version of where we are in this country and common sense understanding that there is still areas of racial discrimination that we are working to end. To listen to Al Sharpton is to believe we are still in the 50’s or 60’s and haven’t made progress.

    The president had a lot of great points last night, but most of his speech had to do with somehow scolding police officers, as a whole, as if the only reason more blacks (per capita) are in jail is because of racial profiling or discrimination rather that behavior. If it is truly racism, why aren’t more women of color or older men of color being harassed in the same manner?

    Again, this is a touchy subject and one that I don’t address lightly. I certainly believe more can be done on this and any racism needs to be seen as the poison that it is. But when we take a case like this and a grand jury (who has all the evidence – of which we only have what the media feeds us) sees no crime, I think we also have to reflect on how we rush to judgment due to our own feelings of guilt. Officer Wilson, the Duke Students or 6 white guys in the case of Tawana Brawley shouldn’t have to pay the price for that rush to judgment.

    Your blog is insightful as always.

  2. I would like to think that I am color blind. I feel, in the bottom of my heart, that I get to know a person before making judgments about them. (And those “judgments” are not the “are you going to heaven or not” judgments, but more along the lines of “how do I expect this person to react in a given situation” judgment. More like a judgment about how they will behave, than whether they are good or bad.) Once I know a person, I will typically know how they will react in a given situation. I think we all do this.

    However, am I totally without prejudice? NO. I can judge, with almost 100% certainty, that people who wear hats while they drive are bad drivers. Does this mean I’m biased or judgmental? In a way, yes it does. But that doesn’t mean I hate people who wear hats, or that I think people who wear hats might not be great financiers or engineers or gardeners. It just means that there is a huge correlation (in my mind) between people who wear hats and people who behave in a certain fashion in a particular circumstance.

    What do you think about that? Is it fair to make generalizations about how people will behave, without being a “racist” or even “judgmental”? Does that make me a bad person?

    What if I also think that Asians are bad drivers? Now am I a racist – or have I just noticed that a certain type of person will behave a certain way in a given set of circumstances?

    I admit that I am a white man, and I spend virtually all of my time around white people, so I am curious to get your perspective. And PLEASE don’t worry about offending me – if you think that my belief that Asians are bad drivers, you have my permission to call me a racist. I truly am curious about your thoughts, and I invite 100% honesty from you.

  3. I personally wouldn’t call that racism. It’s judgmental and biased, but that’s different. If you have truly observed that the bad drivers that you encounter are actually driving poorly then you are basing your opinion on the facts available to you. If you said all blacks are criminals, I think that would be racist even if you had encountered a number of thieves who happened to be black. There is a difference. If you had never encountered a black person in your life, or seen them on TV or the like and encountered 10 and all 10 were thieves, then you are just using the data available. Now the reason I make the distinction is that it is VERY unlikely that scenario B would ever happen :).

    The only thing I would caution is saying ALL of any particular race, gender etc etc is anything. Whether you are saying all Irish are drunks or all Asians are bad drivers. I don’t think it makes you racist to observe something, but it may if you take that to another level.

  4. Bob: Lots of questions… Here are my answers.
    We all “pre-judge” (where the word “prejudice comes from). It’s instinctual and it’s how we learn. If we have an experience, we generalize it, to keep ourselves safe or learn what we like. Tall people or short people or any color people or any gender people or blue-eyed people or whatever — if we had a good experience with them, we think better of people with that characteristic. If we had a bad experience, we think worse of people with that characteristic, depending on what characteristic we focus on, we make a judgment the next time we experience it. Of course, in theory, none of us are born knowing anything, so all judgments/prejudices are learned.
    How do we learn if we never experience something ourselves? We learn from what our parents say, what our friends say, what magazines say, what supposedly “wise” people think — in other words, from our society. Later, we learn from what people in power say — teachers, government officials, corporations and so on — in other words, from “The Establishment” or “The Man” or “The Powers That Be”. Do we live in a racist society? Damn right we do. And a sexist society, and … the list goes on. How do I know that? If we start with no prejudice and we end up with some prejudice, especially about groups we have no actual experience with, then we didn’t learn this stuff from out of nowhere, we learned it somewhere else — society or authority figures or wherever. When some people say “you’re racist”, what they mean is “we live in a racist society” and “I suffer because of prejudice”, in the sense of “we’re all racist”. Of course, that’s a gross generalization, and maybe you have never done a racist thing in your life (especially if you grew up in an all-white community). Generally, when I say society’s racist, that’s what I mean. I don’t generally talk about specific people as racist, unless they make racist remarks or do racist things. This is an important distinction and we on the left need to be careful with our language.
    Now, regarding “Asian drivers” and racism, yes, you are racist if you think that all Asians are bad drivers. Perhaps the Vietnamese are great drivers or the Japanese or bad drivers as a whole or generally, but any given person could be a great driver or a horrible one. Any time you say “all X group are Y characteristic …”, you are wrong. Any two people are going to be different in some ways. So, you can get nervous when you’re in Chinatown, but be nervous because those particular drivers are bad drivers, not because they are or are not Chinese. Otherwise it’s a waste of your time and energy — you’re being nervous for nothing and your prejudice doesn’t help in the situation.
    From what I know of you, you’re generally a nice person, so “racist” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. As to whether you’re racist because most of your friends are White — you’re not. You can’t have a race problem if there is only one race. What would make you racist would be if you intentionally avoided Black folk or thought all Blacks are bad, or said such things. Liking people is never a problem. Disliking people is, if they’ve never done anything to you. In any case, get more Black friends because there are soooo many good parts of Black culture, and get more Italian friends because there so many good parts of Italian culture and more German friends because … you get the picture. I have been absolutely blessed by the African-Americans I know, I would wish that for you as well.



  5. Bob and Sean:
    Sean and Bob: I’m not sure why I am saddened by the decision if the facts don’t agree with what I expected. Facts are facts, after all. A lot of people I know are. I’ll get over it. What I am angry about/sad about is that people will say “racism doesn’t exist” and we’re all logical. Too many of my friends experience it to think that way. People won’t hire a Black person or let them live in a certain section of town, simply because they are Black. That’s heinous. The problem with the verdict is that once again nothing will be done to fix a problem that we think doesn’t exist. The verdict proves that there’s no racism in Darren Wilson’s actions. It doesn’t prove that there’s no racism in the police force or the rest of the world. People aren’t “whiners” because they complain if what they are “whining” about is real, and painful.
    I would like so many of my friends to get justice for the indignities that they suffer. A guilty verdict would have meant that people were taking the issue seriously. Apparently, a guilty verdict against this particular officer wouldn’t have been justified. But that’s why I am “disappointed” in the verdict.



  6. So are you saying that the lack of indictment (this wasn’t a trial) means that people aren’t taking racism (I assume that’s the issue) seriously?

    If he had been indicted, what do you think would be different?

  7. Most and by most, I mean the VAST majority would never say racism doesn’t exist. What people like me are saying is stop focusing so much on racism existing that you lose sight of the progress we have made since the slavery and in more modern times since the civil rights movement. We are also saying systemic racism isn’t prevalent. That’s not even close to saying racism doesn’t exist.

    John, you couldn’t be more wrong that there wouldn’t have been riots. There would have been riots celebrating the indictment (a la world series). Look at the video of the people rioting and looting. They are enjoying themselves. The people peacefully protesting are trying for real change to what they perceive (right or wrong) to be an injustice. The people rioting are looking to cause mayhem and get free stuff.

    BTW, assuming that you are right that there would have been no riots if there was an indictment. So what then? When he doesn’t get convicted because the burden of proof shifts from probable cause to beyond a reasonable doubt, the riots happen then. So we should just convict him to make them feel better and feel like they are being heard?

    1. Wow, Sean. Here’s where we’ll disagree. I think systemic racism IS present. I’m probably using hyperbole when I say “folks think racism doesn’t exist”, but that’s how it often feels. If that’s not what you mean, I apologize, but that’s my experience. Re: looters, I agree. They went there planning to loot and pillage. It’s just that they wouldn’t have cover of “anger over the verdict” so, it’s far less likely. If Wilson were found guilty and sentenced to prison, the left would be heralding a “new possibility” and the right be crying “racism”. Because camps are so entrenched and people want to get to “the moral of the story” before they know what the story IS, this is a no win situation for now and will be for awhile. When cooler heads prevail, my hope is that justice can come out of this. I don’t have any interest in sending an innocent man to jail. I think the law should be applied fairly and evenly.

  8. Do you think it would be beneficial to make a distinction between racism (of which I am a racist, as pointed out above) and race hatred?

    I think it would take the conversation a long way.

  9. I think that is where we do disagree. See, while you sort of poked fun at us believing ourselves to be logical creatures earlier on, in my estimation we should always be seeking to be that even if we fail.

    When you say it “feels” that way I wonder if it is because of what you do for a living? You encounter people at their lowest (and probably highest) and you also work in the ministry which exposes you to such things. Day to day in the “real world” I don’t think it is as prevalent as you believe it to be. We have made progress towards Dr Kings dream. Yes, there is always work to do, but there is something that gets missed along the way. Blacks aren’t the only minority and we have biases and prejudgments on all sorts of things outside of race. If I see a white kid in a hoody and his pants down around his butt on a dark lonely street at night…the chances are I am crossing the street. That same kid could be an honor student for all I know, but experience says otherwise. When people are called out as racist for things that aren’t due to race, but to common sense it sullies the conversation. The “Thug” lifestyle has nothing to do with African culture any other culture for that matter. That is a modern contrivance and society does have the right to judge it when it is carried out on the street.

    When I first listened to Obama’s speech the other night I thought it was very well done. I have since read the transcript (as I tend to do) and realized it wasn’t quite as awesome as I thought. He focused almost entirely on what divides us and on the sins of the past. He also only had 1 sentence devoted to what kind of job being a police officer is and that law enforcement put there lives on the line. He only called for calm at the beginning and then spent much of it finger wagging. Unfortunately, that may work for a certain segment of the audience (I’m looking at you Mr Bibeau) since you think he is largely right and we are still a racist nation. But, not only does it not resonate with me and others like me…it gives rioters and looters permission for that behavior since they have been “wronged”.

    Now, if he gave that speech in a few weeks after cooler heads could prevail…I have no problem with it…but it was the wrong tone right after the verdict came down.

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