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.
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.
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.
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.
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.