This is the year in which we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Bill. Instead of being able to reflect on the distance we have traveled since 1964, the horrific events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri only served to remind us of how far we still have to go.
It’s not just the thought of Michael Brown lying dead in the street with six bullets in his young body. It’s not just the scene of police in armored vehicles, dressed in battle fatigues, military issue helmets, and gas masks staring down demonstrators through the gun-sights of their high-powered weapons. It is that. But it is so much more.
It’s the pent up frustration of Ferguson’s African American community. Despite comprising more than two-thirds of their city’s population, they must deal with hostility from a police presence that is 95% white. They face daily reminders of their subordinate status in the form of harassment and incidents of racial profiling. Add to this, the rage of too many African Americans in Ferguson and the nation who are disproportionately plagued by youth unemployment and inadequate public education opportunities trapping them in the crippling clutches of poverty and violence and despair and anger.
What played out on the streets of Ferguson – the stand-off between demonstrators chanting “black life matters” and “hands up/don’t shoot” facing well-armed police— is America’s tragic unfinished business in a microcosm. It’s not just Ferguson, its all of us who are on one side or the other of that line that has divided our nation since its beginning.
Everywhere we look in today’s America we see signs telling us that in the 150 years since the end of slavery and the 50 years since the Civil Rights Bill we still haven’t gotten it right.
We want to ignore it, but we cannot and should not forget the simple truth that our nation was born in sin – slavery was its name. Freedom didn’t come with the stroke of Lincoln’s pen. Releasing slaves without providing the means to right the wrong and alleviate the injustice of that evil institution left generations of African Americans to be preyed upon in the post-Reconstruction South. Moving north to find work they found segregation which locked them into ghettos of poverty where they were again preyed upon and exploited.
Slavery had ended, but racism lived on. Because we have not confronted its corrosive evil and lasting stain, it continues to infect our political, social, and cultural life. Raw economic data and public opinion polls show how deep the gap between the races. One of the most disturbing statistics that should haunt us all is the fact that one-third of young African American males are either in prison, serving terms or awaiting trial, or on parole. Something is terribly wrong. That we apparently can’t accept our collective paternity for this situation and that our leaders lack the will or just outright refuse to address this tragic situation that denies our young men the opportunity to succeed – only ensures that it will continue for another generation. Unless we own this sin and face it down, the gap will persist, leading to more Fergusons.
Some naively believed that the election of Barack Obama would move us beyond race. Instead, his election only served to aggravate the latent racism that has long defined our politics. Two generations ago, it was “states’ rights”, segregation, and Jim Crow. One generation ago, it was expressed in coded messages like “welfare queens”, or “Willie Horton”. Today the focus is on the President, himself. Listening to the Tea Party or the Birther Movement or the Faith and Freedom crowd, we hear subtle, and not so subtle racism – “he’s not like us”, “he’s not for us”, “he’s not born here”, “he’s a Muslim” “he scares me, I worry about what kind of America my children will live in”, or “we want our country back.”
It is as if middle-aged, middle class, white Americans, facing the most severe economic crisis since the Depression, woke up one morning to find a young educated black man in the White House and could not contain their confusion and rage at what they believed was their displacement.
The persistent physical division of our country into largely segregated neighborhoods – with those who have, or at least, feel that they are entitled to have, facing off against and fearing those who have not – has produced the drama of Ferguson with its defining emotions of resentment and fear and anger and its over-militarized police force guarding the gates of privilege and “public order”.
Take a step back and think for a moment how the scenes of Ferguson look to the rest of the world and the shame of it all sinks in. We like to think of ourselves as setting a standard for the world and we are all too often inclined to criticize the failings of others – while in reality the bar we’ve set for ourselves is so awfully low. To borrow from Jesus in the Gospel, we are so good at seeing the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, while missing the log in our own.
We can and must do better. In the 1990’s, then President Clinton invited us to engage in a national dialogue on race. I had hoped, back then, that a real national conversation would take place in our schools, places of worship, community centers, and living rooms. That we would listen to each other and come to know each other’s fears and resentments, hopes and dreams. And that out of that sustained encounter we would be better able to become the “One America” Clinton had envisioned. The project never really got off the ground. But that should not discourage us from trying it again. Healing the racial divide should be our nation’s priority.
Only if we make a determined effort, as a society, to move beyond division and inequality will we be able to bring to life Dr. King’s dream and ensure that there are no more Ferguson’s and no more Michael Brown’s anywhere.