Monday, December 29, 2014

Listening and Learning After the Ferguson Moment

This past fall, I watched from afar as friends and colleagues around the country joined in protests, chanting and displaying now familiar slogans -- Black Lives Matter! Hands Up Don't Shoot! -- and after the failure of Staten Island grand jury to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner -- I Can't Breathe. In Ann Arbor, my graduate school stomping ground, protests over the Mike Brown case also picked up outrage over an event shockingly close to home, the shooting death of Ann Arbor-resident Aura Rosser.

I read tweets and facebook posts, newspaper coverage and blog posts. Like so many other Americans, I set to work on the #Fergusonsyllabus. The events of the past fall have produced an overwhelming amount of writing from experts and observers, activists and pundits, all analyzing and reassessing what we think we know about race and justice in America in 2014.

Then I was invited to participate in a panel organized by the USD Law School on The Ferguson Moment (on which part of this post is based). Where to begin? What stories to tell, what framework to provide to begin to chip away at the complexity that produced Ferguson October?

Like so many Americans, I was surprised by what the Mike Brown shooting, the months of protests, and ongoing and contentious media coverage revealed about our racially divided America. I thought I understood. I thought my training as a historian had provided me with the context and the frameworks I needed to understand race in 2014. But there is always more that we don't understand. 

These cases and the mounting examples of black deaths at the hands of police officers seemed to suggest that there was something about our moment that many of us were missing. What structural context could help me explain these events and the outpouring of grief and anger in response? What could help me explain Why Mike Brown? Why did this case become our national reckoning? What could I learn now so that this coming semester, when I stand in front of my US history survey to tell the story of the so-called American century, I will have stronger, clearer narratives to help make the politics of our moment more comprehensible?

 There were books by historians of course. But I also had to look in other disciplines, to the work of sociologists Douglass Massey, American Apartheid, and Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth and the timely The New Jim Crow by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. I revisited "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates' chronicle of housing discrimination in the June Atlantic.

Of course, one of the tensions operating within our ongoing national dialogues about race and justice after Ferguson is how to figure RACE in our analysis. The greatest divide in our national conversations has been around race. I looked to what a new generation of critical race theorists like Imani Perry were saying about race in America today, challenging pervasive and damaging narratives of a postracial America.

As I explained in my remarks at the law school panel, one of the statistics that I found most fascinating in my reading on Ferguson was about polling that asked whether race was a factor in the death of Mike Brown and revealed a striking racial divide. 76% of black respondents in one Huffington Post poll said the shooting was "part of a broader pattern" of encounters while only 40% of whites agreed. According to a Pew poll, 80% of black Americans felt that the shooting "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed" compared to 37% of whites. Meanwhile 47% of whites "believe the issue of race is getting more attention that it deserves." 

Wasn't it Tim Wise who noted that the Mike Brown case had become a national racial Rohrshach test?

Clearly, there is a major disconnect between the ways in which black and white Americans identify race as a factor – in policing practices, the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police, and in assessing the factors contributing to black poverty and segregation. But why? 

Perhaps the tendency to see and confront race as a factor in these cases was also a reflection of  our different experiences of being racialized subjects, particularly racialized subjects in relation to the state. Many argue that the ability to claim that race was not a factor in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and others is a function of what scholars call white privilege. The experience of white privilege limits white Americans' ability and willingness to consider how black Americans in communities that are hypersegregated, economically blighted, and the focus of policing experience themselves as criminalized bodies within their communities.

The deal with privilege.

Most white Americans wear (to paraphrase one of my colleagues) the blinders of white privilege. We move through our daily lives without fear of the police or police harassment. We don't expect to be stopped and search on a city street. We have rarely been asked to get out of a car after being pulled over. Like many white women, I have gotten out of tickets and been accused by male friends of cashing in on the privileges of being a girl. Well, I was actually cashing in on the privilege of being white. I don't expect to be followed by security guards in department stores. I grew up expecting that were I to be arrested, my rights would be respected and my physical person not violated.

Racial privilege also effects how white people are often regarded as voices of authority and expertise. We do not expect to have our legitimacy as authorities questioned. We are not asked or assumed to speak for our race, but we are often implicitly assumed to have a more neutral perspective on matters of race. No one's perspective is neutral. None of us are neutral. But the tricky piece of it is that most white people think about race in terms of the way they experience race as an absence. Actually, white people often experience race as a privilege. 

Privilege can be a challenging concept particularly for those who carry the most privilege. Having privilege, particularly racial privilege, doesn't mean that we are without struggles; it means that white people start out with a different balance sheet, different forms of capital. I'll choose another metaphor. Racial privilege is a blank check many white people are never aware we are constantly cashing in. When navigating daily life most white people will not have many of the same experiences with law enforcement as people of color. We also won't know what we are missing. 

That is why white people need to to listen--to the voices, the experiences, the critiques of people of color. Because it is a privilege to be able to ignore it. 

And then a nation discovered that Mike Brown's death had become a tipping point in an ongoing struggle that many white people didn't realize was happening. We couldn't see our national water because so many of us carried invisible oxygen masks. But sometimes, especially for people who carry the benefits of privilege, even those invested in their role as activists and allies, listening is a difficult thing to do.

* * *
After news that a grand jury in New York had chosen not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner, and in light of the nationwide protests in response, I asked the Center for Diversity and Community if they would host a dialogue about Race in America After Ferguson  -- you can read more about it here. I wanted to be part of a space and a set of conversations that weren't virtual. 

At Dialogue: Race After Ferguson, the students I spoke with in our small groups grappled with the implications of nationwide events and protests--for South Dakota. News coverage seemed overwhelming and contradictory. Some were unsure how racial politics in Ferguson or Staten Island were relevant to us in South Dakota. How were we supposed to take what were learning and apply it to our lives? We came up with some provisional answers. The Ferguson moment is relevant to us here in South Dakota because discriminatory policing practices happen everywhere that there is entrenched racial inequality and a history of fraught and violence race relations. We aren't Ferguson or Staten Island, but what is our Ferguson?

The following week we got an even better answer. On December 19, the protests that blossomed all over America came to South Dakota. Activists led a rally in Rapid City to call attention to race relations between whites and Natives in South Dakota and protest police brutality. Indian Lives Matter! was the slogan.

Through local reporting I learned about the 1999 Civil Rights Commission that came to South Dakota following a succession of unsolved murders of Native men. The findings of the commission highlighted the deep racial divide in South Dakota and feeling of hopelessness within its Native communities caused by entrenched economic inequalities and compounded by a total lack of faith in the justice system. None of the recommendations of the commission have been followed through to the present. The recent protests and reporting suggest that its findings remain relevant to South Dakota today.

The Ferguson Moment is our national moment. It is about forcing us to confront unfinished civil rights struggles all around us, and to discover what we didn't know we didn't understand.

1 comment:

  1. This was so insightful I read it over again a few times. You've hit an essential point that applies not only to race, but to all equality issues - including gender and class - in areas like access to employment, education, health, housing and opportunity. Those in the 'privileged' sectors may not think their world segregates, they may subscribe to and abide by the rules and laws of equality, but they can't really appreciate what's it's like to experience apartheid / segregation / racism / sexism etc….until they walk in the other's shoes. Dickens's stories are full of it on a class basis, the classic (haha) Victorian inequality was 'class' (still around I'm afraid - more discreet and less charming than ever) … and most fairy tales, especially The Prince and the Pauper story - tackle identity swapping to experience the other's world. Challenging inequality has been the spur for most revolutions - some bloody and some silent - but the two major hurdles in tackling the problem are 1) recognizing it exists and 2) persuading those it benefits (a delicate issue in itself) that it's wrong and needs to change. I'm loving historians getting involved with politics.