Christmas in Ferguson

It's taken me awhile to gather my thoughts about the events in Ferguson, MO.

I don't understand Ferguson. As a white, upper-middle–class, college-educated, small-town–raised male who's always had a stable home life, strong support system, and relatively progressive hometown environment, as much as I desperately want to share the pain and burden of those living with the realities of the recent grand jury verdict and ensuing events, I cannot. The most I can do is sympathize, because I will never have anything like the experiences that hundreds of thousands of Black Americans are forced to endure every single day.

I don't understand Ferguson because I can't understand Ferguson. I could never understand Ferguson. I have privilege innumerable, and because of that privilege, whatever perspective I can bring to these ongoing events must be understood as limited in its very nature. But I still want to try. It's irresponsible not to try.

I sat with my two dearest friends nearly three weeks ago as the grand jury decision was broadcast for the first time. At the time, my reaction can only be described as one of dumbfoundedness. By now, we've all seen the statistics about how rare it is for a grand jury not to return an indictment (except, apparently, when police officers are involved). We've Googled and Wikipedia'd exactly what a grand jury's responsibility is with the respect to the law and court proceedings. It seemed to me, at the time, that with a case where there was so much overwhelming inconsistency in the evidence and eye-witness testimony, that it would be impossible to justify not sending it all in front of a judge and jury. And yet, that's exactly what happened.

Now, as information begins to surface that the grand jury may have been intentionally misled by state prosecutors, I am no less dumbfounded, and all the more angry. As a person who tries to maintain a relatively positive outlook on life, I always want to believe that every person is inherently good; and maybe I don't need to give that idea up. But one thing, more than anything else, has become painfully clear to me over the past few weeks:

There is perhaps no larger problem facing America's justice system than rampant, unchecked institutional racism.

This was a difficult conclusion for me to accept. I'm a rule-follower — a textbook goody-two-shoes — and hardly what you would call anti-authority. I place my faith in the system, and I like to believe that, 9 times out of 10, the system works. By and large, I am the person most likely to say "well, it might not be racism, let's look at all sides of the story."

But I'm also a scientist, and at the end of the day, numbers don't lie. Here, have some infographics.

Now, I am not so cynical as to believe that the system is working as intended, as some would suggest, that it was built to discriminate against people of color; or perhaps I am just too naïve to recognize the extent of institutional privilege. The fact of the matter is, though, that the system is not colorblind, and as one writer put it:

White allies, we need your voices. We need you to say that this is deplorable. Your silence does nothing and if you’re neutral on this, then you’re on the wrong side.

So allow me to add my voice to the mix: this is deplorable. And this is racism.

Finding Understanding as a White Man

Accepting this, and having done as much as I can to educate myself over the past few weeks, I feel like I've learned a great deal. What follows is, to the best of my abilities, some of what I've learned that might hopefully prove useful in discussing and understanding the events in Ferguson as a white ally.

Don't Deny the Existence of Institutional Racism

It is tempting, in times like these, to point to events like the murder of Mike Brown as isolated occurrences. It would be comforting to label it as a tragedy not representative of the norm — a singular event perpetrated by one bad apple in a predominately good bunch.

This line of thinking makes us feel better, but it is not productive.

For one thing, it isn't true. There are far too many counterexamples that demonstrate that, while systemized violence against people of color may not be the rule, neither is it the exception. As a black man in New York City, you are more than half as likely to be killed walking down the street by a law enforcement officer as by a car or a bus. As a white man, that's not true.

At last census, the population of New York City was 8,405,837. Of that population, 3,704,243 residents identified as White, and 2,086,566 residents identified as Black or African American. In the year 2012, 136 pedestrians were killed as a result of vehicular traffic, which makes your likelihood of dying from being hit by a car about 0.0016%. That same year, 21 people were killed by police officers, and (we can presume) 18 of them were black if the 86% statistic quoted in the article held up. If you're white, that makes your likelihood of being killed by police approximately 0.00008%. If you're black, it's 0.0009%, a full order of magnitude greater, or roughly 53% as likely as getting hit by a car (vs. 5% if you're white).

But even if it were true that institutional racism doesn't exist — which it isn't — this line of thinking is like telling yourself you don't have a cold after the third sneeze. It's something you internalize that helps you get on with your day, but it only serves to delay you from treating the problem. Institutional racism is an illness, and denying its existence only makes it harder to cure.

Don't Marginalize

Along those same lines, don't try to make the issue not about race.

There is a temptation to try to contextualize the events of Ferguson as part of a larger problem of police overreach. There is a faction of people who, in response to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that rose to popularity following the Ferguson verdict, have championed the #AllLivesMatter hashtag as a "more inclusive" (ugh) alternative. And there are people who, when a white person is killed by police, or after events like the horrifying and tragic execution-style murder of two NYPD officers just the other day, will say things like "bet you won't hear any outrage in the news over this one!"

My suspicion is that these are the same kinds of people who proudly waved the #NotAllMen flag after the Isla Vista shootings earlier this year.

Using a hashtag like #AllLivesMatter, or saying black people aren't the only target of police violence, is the moral equivalent of barging into a funeral and yelling "you're not the only one who's lost someone!" Stop it. Stop it right now. All police brutality is bad. Right now, police brutality against people of color is worse, so it's time to talk about that. Don't hijack a movement because it doesn't count you as a victim.

#BlackLivesMatter is a rallying cry worth defending.

Condemn the Riots, Not the Rioters

As someone who has never rioted, I find riots confusing. To many, they're tremendously counterintuitive: the phrase I've heard time and time again is "why are they destroying their own city?" (with varying levels of racism associated with the word "they").

So let's start by clearing one thing up: by and large, the residents of Ferguson, MO are not intent on destroying their own city, with some protestors even helping to secure local businesses against some of the more destructive actors. Also, by and large, the ensuing protests that have happend across the United States have been peaceful protests, with relatively little to no damage.

But more than that, it is rarely appropriate to condemn something you don't understand — not just as a matter of politeness, but because it precludes the possibility of doing so cogently and constructively.

As someone who admittedly does not understand the ethos of rioting, anything I could say on the matter would just be regurgitating what others have said more clearly; instead, I'll simply send you to them directly.

The important takeaway: riots are bad, but don't marginalize the emotions of those driven to riot.

And lastly, for the love of God, to the people — mostly white — who smugly and pedantically and not-altogether-innocently hiss the question "what would Martin Luther King say about this?": first of all, how dare you? As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in an op-ed piece for TIME (the whole of which I'm not sure I 100% agree with, but it's an interesting read nonetheless):

"During the Ferguson riots, Fox News ran a black and white photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the bold caption: 'Forgetting MLK’s Message/Protestors in Missouri Turn to Violence.' Did they run such a caption when either Presidents Bush invaded Iraq: 'Forgetting Jesus Christ’s Message/U.S. Forgets to Turn Cheek and Kills Thousands'?"

But second, let's just ask Dr. King what he has to say about it. Excerpted from that first article above, emphasis mine:

"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 1968

(But also, let's not pervert Dr. King's message as taken somewhat out-of-context above. Dr. King absolutely would have said — and did say — that riots are not the answer, but there's an important distinction between saying "you should not riot" and "you are unjustified in rioting.")

Don't Abandon Your Beliefs

Towards the start of this post, I mentioned a few beliefs — that everyone is inherently good, that the system generally works — that I have held, naïve or not. Many of them seem as though they could be fundamentally incompatible with reality in light of recent events. It's important in all this despair, though, to remember that not all beliefs are mutually exclusive.

I don't want to spend an undue amount of time talking about it, but just remember that you don't need to give up on the beliefs you hold dear in order to be outraged by the events in Ferguson. I sadly cannot find the original quote (I think it was Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert that said it), but it was something to the effect of: "it's possible to have great respect for our nation's law enforcement and at the same time believe that they should be held to a higher standard." Don't feel like you have to choose one or the other.

Don't Lose Hope

Perhaps most importantly, though, as the Christmas season rapidly approaches, is to remember not to lose hope.

Even underneath all the pain and outrage, there have been shining examples all around the country of people doing great things. Thousands of people turned out for the Millions March in New York City last week to peacefully show solidarity with the families of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. As already mentioned, residents of Ferguson, MO are working together to prevent further destruction in the face of less-civil protesters. Great organizations, like the GLIDE Church in San Francisco are sponsoring radio ads in the Bay Area to remind people of the importance of loving one another in such trying times. And perhaps the most poignant of all, "the hug shared around the world," as a 12-year-old Ferguson protestor shares an embrace with a police officer in Portland.

There will always be tragedy, and when that tragedy is caused by inequity, it is our duty as human beings to fight against it. We must never forget that we are not fighting alone.

Don't Stop Helping

On the one hand, I feel embarrassed for taking three weeks to say anything; but on the other, I'm glad that I did, because it's another excuse to keep the conversation moving. The best thing that any of us can do is to not stop talking about it. I'll refer again to an article I excerpted in the first section of this post:

Remember that no matter the color of your skin, this is a problem that affects all of us. And if you haven't seen it, Jon Stewart's rant against those who wish to silence the discussion about race is a masterpiece worth watching.

Christmas Dinner

Which brings me to my last point: if you believe that America has an illness in the form of institutional racism, you must do so authentically and wholly.

There are few things more uncomfortable than broaching a touchy subject when surrounded by your extended family — especially if you're like me, with all of the familial baggage that comes with an all-white family whose views on race and privilege at times ring outdated. But the topic may, and in all likelihood, will come up at the dinner table this year, at least for a moment.

We have a responsibility not to shy away from it.

Do not remain silent on the issues in the news for the sake of avoiding confrontation at the table; all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to stay silent, and that includes — and perhaps, is most important — around our friends and family.

So before you sit down to Christmas dinner this year, prepare yourself to talk about Ferguson — and Eric Garner, for that matter, and the sadly not insignificant number of recent events that highlight institutional racism in this country. Have those tough conversations, and treat them as teachable moments — talk about privilege, talk about why movements like #AllLivesMatter are damaging, offer some context on the riots, and explain why no, having a black president does not, in fact, mean that racism is dead.

But once you've done that, also take a moment to remember everything that is good in the world, for we have not yet gone to Hell in a handbasket. Embrace your loved ones, and look to the people who do great things for their fellow man and woman every single day — crucially, not so as to marginalize that which needs fixing, but as a way to remember that we can fix it. Stay positive. Love each other.

Merry Christmas, everyone, with all the love I can give.