(“Hands Up Don’t Shoot” – image by velo_city)
These are people’s children. Lives taken too early. Unjustly.
As a parent, myself, I know I will always have my share of worries about our daughter. From her health to her first failures, there is plenty to worry about. But one worry that most often escapes me, and many White parents in America like me, is that my daughter will will most likely not face the terror of losing her life at gunpoint because of her race.
Yes, this is 2014. It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Sadly, we still have a long way to go. But the challenge of understanding the situation in places like Ferguson is that we’re not simply talking about individual bias and fear. We’re talking about how race is rooted deeply in how we live, work, and interact in our nation. And that is deeply determined and driven by policy, such as housing, education, and healthcare. Together, these policies interact to create structures that shape opportunity for all of us. But because of our history of racially discriminatory policies, people of color are more likely to be situated poorly in these structures. Combine this reality with the history of police violence in communities of color and the message to young folks of color is clear:
If you are Black, your life and future are not valued equally.
Here’s a quick look at the structures surrounding these young people’s lives:
Housing policies and the economy are intimately connected to the loss of Michael Brown’s life. Suburbanization, predatory lending, and economic recession all drove the rampant segregation that divided the community and created inequity in housing values between Whites and people of color; it also set the stage for how Ferguson funded education, transit services, and attracted business investment and amenities. The result was the creation of disparate neighborhoods that could allow those with power and agency to consciously, and unconsciously, judge Michael Brown through the lens of poverty and lesser value.
And, like in Ferguson, the lack of government priority on accountable policing policy led to the loss of Eric Garner’s and Oscar Grant’s lives. Law enforcement can play a critical function of a healthy society. But it should reward policing that builds community and supports families and youth, not prioritizes arrests at all costs. But the reality for too many youth of color is a police force that all too often judges them before they act , arrests them at a rate far more higher than Whites, and increasingly uses military weaponry.
The deep breakdown of infrastructure and services due to disinvestment in a city like Detroit resulted in the lack of public transit and emergency help that could have aided Renisha McBride after her car broke down during a late night thunderstorm. Turning to a nearby house, Renisha sought help only to be gunned down, perceived as a “threat”, an outsider to a community that increasingly excluded her.
We have to ask, given these experiences by communities of color, do we as a nation provide our youth like Michael Brown enough opportunity to succeed in America? Was his opportunity really the same as what my daughter’s will be? Or was his opportunity already limited because of where he grew up? What good paying job prospects were open for him (the Ferguson median household income is around $35,000)? How does he have opportunity when he was profiled in broad daylight as “the other” just for walking in the street?
The losses of these lives are a tragedy. And they always spur a conversation about race in America. But it’s not always the right conversation. We are still missing key points in our national dialogue. Too often, the discussion focuses on the “culture of poverty” and the biases that individuals have, diverting us from the critical dialogue around the policies that actually drive segregation, institutional practices, and reinforce people’s biases. Instead, we must discuss how people’s reactions and responses are deeply influenced by their surroundings, which are established by our policies, take root at where we live, and are implemented in institutions like the media that most often show people of color as criminal, undeserving, and lesser. Just look at how the Ferguson police department and media portrayed Michael Brown.
We need to change our conversation not only to stop this pattern but for the actual survival of our own nation and even planet. We are facing far too many challenges, from climate change to hunger, to allow ourselves to uphold, implement, and build a society based on inequity and barriers that are rooted in race. We cannot succeed.
The nation is browning at an explosive pace. In just 25 years we will be majority people of color. Today, a majority people of color are under 20. Teenagers. The same as Michael Brown. Renisha McBride. What are we saying to the future of our nation when they see their peers gunned down? It’s time for a new strategy.
We need a strategy that addresses structural problems and builds community. We have, in the past and present, created laws to separate ourselves, but it only ends in tragedy. And the sorrow of Michael Brown’s loss is a reflection on all of us. Our lives are deeply intertwined by the way we create and implement structures like policing, education, and housing policy. We can’t ignore the fact that something happened “over there”, because in reality we share the same ground, it just has not been equitably. It’s time we find solutions both in solidarity and in practice. Thankfully, we can look to examples for hope. We can look to efforts like the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina focusing efforts towards building policies of inclusion and the Our Power Campaign that propose racially inclusive generative and life-sustaining solutions to structurally unjust challenges And now we look to the community of Ferguson mobilizing for change. We must find ways to support the community of leaders that are trying to build a neighborhood free of violence and one of trust opportunity, and fairness.
What is happening in Ferguson isn’t isolated there. Its a repeated cycle that has played out before: outrage, and then we move on to the next news story. But Michael, Renisha, Eric, and Oscar don’t get to move on. And if we continue this pattern, ultimately we won’t either.
It’s time for us to move in a different direction. I plead not as an advocate, but as a father.