Let me begin by stating the obvious, Ferguson is about more than Michael Brown, the unarmed, eighteen year old African American who was slain in the street by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. It is even about more than the disregard shown for his body---which was desecrated and left out in the street for four hours to rot, left on display to serve as a public service announcement to his community. While it is definitely about these things, it is also about much more! At its core, Ferguson is about declaring the inherent worth of black people. It is about elucidating the domestic terrorism that black people in the U.S. have historically been forced to endure and continue to be confronted with today. Ferguson is about a dream deferred, 40 acres and mule, and as Dr. King Jr. said, “the bad check this nation wrote to black people which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’" It is about unmasking and naming the systems and structures which seek to strip us of our humanity and dignity on a daily basis. It is about an utter disregard for black life in this nation; that is, unless we are being exploited for financial profit in the form of free or cheap labor.
The evening the grand jury handed down its decision, I was asked to reflect on the meaning of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. I began by saying that it is a theological proclamation rooted in the Imago Dei, declaring our divine endowment as image bearers of The Creator! I went on to say that it is a statement of faith, one that says that God does not see and respond to blackness in the same way our fallen world does. I also said that it is a prophetic call asking our nation to confess of its sinful legacy of racism, which is this nation's original sin. I concluded by saying that it is a rallying cry birthed from the lamentation of lynched, raped, mutilated, and gunned-down black bodies, bodies which were disgraced, defiled, and deemed worthless. However, let me make one more clarifying point here: to say that black lives matter, is not to say that other lives do not. Actually, it is the inverse. To say that black lives matter within a nation that has, over the course of its history, deemed black life as criminal and subhuman—even going as far as legally constituting black people as property instead of humans—is to say that the lives of what has been rendered “the least of these,” matter. Consequently, the proclamation black lives matter, is an affirmation that all lives matter, even those Frantz Fanon calls “the wretched of the earth.”
Ferguson is also about the fact that race in the United States has been encoded within a vernacular of morality. Whiteness is associated with citizenship, integrity, law, and order; while darker pigmentation is linked to otherness, suspicion, criminality, and deviance. This reality is further crystalized every time a case such as Darren Wilson’s goes to trial. In this nation, we always place the slain black male on trial, even while claiming to investigate the white male who killed him. The same routine is replicated each time—a smear campaign is launched on the deceased, with the intent of digging up any modicum of dirt (and now with the Tamir Rice killing, we see that this smear campaign has the possibility of being extended onto the deceased’s parents). This smear campaign is meant to possibly validate the officer’s fears and therefore justify him feeling that his life was in danger. The killer is allowed the privilege of sharing his side of the story and his side, as the only remaining party involved in the encounter, is taken as the most authentic account of what actually occurred during the time in question. His account of the encounter, which is somehow seen as unbiased, is accepted and used to legitimize his fears and therefore justify him feeling compelled to pull the trigger; even in cases, like this one where the white male, with the gun, is the instigator in the encounter and the person who is killed is found to be unarmed. Moreover, in addition to the standard demonization of the slain black body which occurs, in this case, Darren Wilson actually describes Michael Brown as a possessed object, not person, before he killed him, saying, “it looks like a demon.” Inexplicably, this vilification of black men works within our legal system; evidenced again by this incident, which seems to have a lot of questionable details, but yet is not even able to earn an indictment. This is thoroughly problematic, especially when the facts tell us that indictments are very rarely not handed down by grand juries. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries only declined to return an indictment in 11 of those cases.
Finally, Ferguson is about asking the question: are we entering into a new nadir of race relations in this nation? In U.S. history, specifically within what is known by many as African American studies, the period immediately following Reconstruction has been labeled as the “Nadir Period” of race relations within our nation. Nadir means the lowest point; the time of greatest depression. As astounding as it seems to identify an era after slavery as the period where racism was worse than any other time in our nation’s history, there are tangible reasons for doing so. The most important of those reasons is the emergence of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, who initiated an era of lynching that lasted for fifty years, from 1890 to 1940. During this period, approximately 5,500 African Americans were documented as lynch victims, with lynching reaching its peak in 1892, shortly after Reconstruction ended, with 155 African Americans lynched in this year alone. In fact, during the Nadir Period, the practice of lynching became so prevalent and widespread that the Tuskegee Institute, a predominately black institution in Alabama which later became Tuskegee University, decided in 1881 to begin issuing annual reports on lynchings occurring nationwide. Astonishingly, it was not until 1952 that the institution was able to report that there was not a single lynching to report within a given year. Moreover, while popular belief holds that lynching only occurred in the South, this was a national sin, one for which the South alone cannot serve as a scapegoat. While it is true that lynching was particularly prevalent in the South, it was not exclusively a Southern horror; lynchings were enacted as far North and West as Minnesota, Illinois, California, and Oregon. Ironically, Indiana, a state in the heart of the upper Midwest, was one of the states with the highest number of lynch victims.
As calamitous as this era was for African Americans, things might be getting even worse today. While the recent study suggesting that a black person in this nation is killed every twenty-eight hours by a policemen, security officer, or vigilante might be a tad overinflated upon further research, the fact that such a statistic is within the realm of truth is telling and beyond problematic. What we do know to be true is that black males are at a far greater risk of being killed by police officers during encounters with them, than are their white counterparts – in fact 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings. We also know that there have been 27 black boys, under the age of 14, killed by police between 1980 (the year associated with the launch of the war on drugs) and 2012. Moreover, we know that this is a continuous trend, with the recent killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. We also know that statistically Ferguson police arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races and that at least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson. The USA Today found that “at least 70 departments scattered from Connecticut to California arrested black people at a rate 10 times higher than people who are not black.” All of these realities lead us back to Michelle Alexander’s analysis that she provides in her book the The New Jim Crow, where she elucidates the desperation of African Americans by saying, “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War.” Could we be in a new Nadir of African American racial relations?
[Image: Flickr user Les Haines]