I'm deeply saddened, by so many things: by the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Williams, by the ensuing protests that left Ferguson on fire last night (burning down, among other things, a bakery owned by a black woman for whom her business represented years of selling her cakes at flea markets), by the police response to the violence (more violence), and by a culture that continues to turn a blind eye to persistent racism, hiding under the banner of colorblindness.
James Forman writes in the Atlantic about Chicago sociologist Alice Goffman's book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
One consequence of racism and segregation is that many American whites know little or nothing about the daily lives of African Americans. Black America’s least-understood communities are those poor, hyper-segregated places we once called ghettos. These neighborhoods are not far away, but they might as well be on the moon. The only news most people ever hear about the inner city comes from grim headlines; the only residents they can name are characters on The Wire. Of course, ignorance of a community doesn’t stop outsiders from having opinions about it or passing laws that govern it. But those opinions, based on stereotypes and catchphrases, make it difficult to conduct meaningful public deliberation about social policy. And the laws, all too often, harm people who have enough going against them already.When we talk about Ferguson, let's not start with the fact that there are some good police, or that #AllLivesMatter, or anything else that's self-evident and self-congratulatory. Let's not even start with the fact that beyond the outright bigots there are some really thoughtless people out there, like the Rhodes candidate who saw my student (another Rhodes candidate at the time, now a Rhodes winner) reading Americanah and said "hey, is that book any good? You're like the fourth black girl I've seen reading it." Let's not try to erase race by supplanting it with class, and say that poverty is at the root of all social ills (yes, they are tangled. That doesn't mean they're the same). Let's start with this: we have a problem with racism in this country, which is not going away any time soon.
And that's why the protests are happening. Because pleas to be peaceful in the name of Michael Brown could not contain how people feel. Because what happened in Ferguson, not just on that night in August but for the hundred and eight days the followed, is a metonym for something much larger and more insidious. Because despite calls for "healing," our country doesn't know how to move forward from where we are; there are no guideposts for this.
I can look at the evidence given to the grand jury. I don't know what their deliberations looked like. They must have thought their verdict was fair, given the evidence they reviewed and the laws that governed their decision. I can think that shooting an unarmed man 12 times should be a crime in anyone's book. But I don't know what it's like to live where Michael Brown lived. I will never experience a world of arrest quotas and high-tech surveillance; I will never have to be a fugitive from my own home.
Maybe one thing we can all do is start naming the racism we see, instead of telling people they're overreacting. Maybe we can be more mindful about our language. Maybe we can start to be honest with ourselves about what modern racism looks like. Maybe we can stop using shorthand (e.g. the picture of Ferguson burning), and use the tools of the anthropologist--thick, rich description--to understand. Maybe we can fight for more equality by fighting for more opportunity. Maybe we can learn how other people live, beyond what the media shows us. Maybe we can be kind to each other.
Maybe this is one role for the humanities.
Nothing will change overnight. But we owe our children a better legacy than this.