Ferguson and Fear: The Elephant in the Room

As I write this, there are many things we don’t know – and may never know with certainty - about the circumstances that led to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. What we do know is that another unarmed black teenager is dead. Shot down by police and left to lie in the street for hours. But will the shooting and its aftermath force us as a nation to confront uncomfortable issues of racial and economic justice? I’m not counting on it. According to a Pew Research survey, although 80% of African Americans think the case raises important issues about race only 37% of whites think so. Those numbers are discouraging but hardly surprising, given the very different personal experiences of many black and white Americans with police and larger societal systems.

As I write this, there are many things we don’t know – and may never know with certainty - about the circumstances that led to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. What we do know is that another unarmed black teenager is dead. Shot down by police and left to lie in the street for hours. But will the shooting and its aftermath force us as a nation to confront uncomfortable issues of racial and economic justice? I’m not counting on it. According to a Pew Research survey, although 80% of African Americans think the case raises important issues about race only 37% of whites think so. Those numbers are discouraging but hardly surprising, given the very different personal experiences of many black and white Americans with police and larger societal systems.

I’ve heard and read many commentaries on Ferguson. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what it’s “about.” Is it about endemic but unacknowledged racism among white Americans? Class warfare? Militarization of local police forces? A failure of national leadership?  Massive incarceration of young men of color for non-violent drug offenses?  Ask 20 people and you’ll probably get 20 different answers.  

My view: the explanations most people have put forward are just parts of an elephant. The hulking, unacknowledged beast that underlies all of these causative factors is fear. The events in Ferguson remind us that fear of and ignorance about people we perceive as different from ourselves is at the root of most human conflict, whether in economically advanced regions or in the developing world. People who feel threatened often scapegoat the “others,” arm themselves, act out violently if given the opportunity, and, in democratic societies, elect representatives who codify those fears into law. In the U.S., fear of black men – in its most recent iteration – has produced repressive policies, the transfer of military equipment to police departments, the persistent abuse of power by individuals, institutions and entire systems.  This issue is finally getting some national attention, with My Brother’s Keeper for example, but we’ve got a long way to go.

Sociologists tell us that some level of fear and distrust of others is inevitable - a natural consequence of the development of personal identity as a group member, and it’s not realistic to eradicate it. But human beings also have the capacity to overcome those fears, if we make the necessary personal and collective commitments to do so. That’s the challenge.  It’s up to each of us individually to take action and organize at the community level. Say hello to a stranger who’s different from you, demand better police training in your town, get a dialogue started in your neighborhood, support candidates for local office who have an enlightened perspective on race. We have to acknowledge and confront the fears that have made racial and economic justice such an elusive goal before we can expect to overcome them.


In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing nonprofit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack

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