Some thoughts on Ferguson and Race

It seems that in so many ways, whether it is in society, or in the church, or in politics, or on the athletic field, we like to pick sides. And once we have picked our side, it seems increasingly unlikely that we are able to consider a different point of view. But it is not simply a case of picking sides that is so challenging for us. Once we pick sides, in any of these areas, we typically also pick the ways in which we will think about these sides, what we will read about our side and the other side. In fact, it seems our whole world is shaped by the side we have chosen.

This is become clear in a variety of ways. The latest example has been the situation that occurred in Ferguson,  Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown. Almost from the first moments, one was either on the side of Michael Brown, and by extension the side of minorities all over the country who have experienced harsh treatment of the hands of police, or, one was on the side of Officer Darren Wilson, and by extension all of  the police officers, pointing fingers at the deep crime that exists into many of our neighborhoods in this country. It was very difficult, and in many instances remains so, to be in a position where the complexity of the situation makes taking a side preferable, if not, quite frankly, impossible.

Perhaps it is this very reality, that life is simply too complicated and complex, in this day and age, that makes it more likely that we want to see the world in very stark terms. We want to see the world as only giving one possibility of what is right, or another of what is wrong. Anything that challenges this worldview is discarded simply as a piece of “propaganda” from the other side. Discussions that have occurred since this tragic incident, have only tended to make this line of demarcation even worse. One is either pro-police or anti-police. One can either recognize the pervasive racism present in our country, or simply sees all persons of color as criminals and thugs that are ruining our cities.

While certainly there is right and wrong, the problem, of course, is that life is rarely the simple. It is clear that no one person knows exactly what happened on that day. It does appear there was some struggle in the police car occupied by Darren Wilson, one of the results of which was a shot being fired. This apparently led to Michael Brown running away from the police car, but it’s not really clear what happened other than the fact that Michael Brown was shot. And we don’t know what happened that could provide us with some type of context for all of these events. Did Michael Brown steal cigars? The  video certainly makes it look bad for Michael Brown, but of course we don’t have sound, and as a result, the event  cannot be placed in any type of context. Did he charge Officer Wilson? What exactly happened? Why did officer Wilson get out of his car? Did he call for any backup, and would prudence have dictated waiting until they arrived? As with Michael Brown, we do not have answers, or any context for these actions. And because we are tending to see things only as an issue where one side or the other must be right, we are not able in general, to have certain and complete answers.

The problem of course, is that people want to draw general conclusions from one particular instant. Also, people can see every particular incident as supporting a general conclusion, whether it does or not. This is not a new problem in our country. But it is particularly important for us to acknowledge in this instance because neither every particular instance nor every generalization can be true. For example, it certainly is possible that Michael Brown committed a crime and the Darren Wilson responded appropriately as a police officer charged with protecting the community. And it is also possible, the people of color in this country, experience far too often, harassment that is unfair, and treatment under the law that is not consistent or accurate. These two possibilities do not preclude the other being true.

It is too simplistic to blame the 24-hour news cycle for the situation that we face in this country. Certainly it is not easy to fill 24 hours of airtime every day, and the temptation is to try to outdo the other networks with a more sensational story than the other. But each one of us as individuals also bear a share of the responsibility for the circumstances we face. Whatever else news organizations do, they have to attract enough people to become interested in what they produce, whether it is on the television or in newspapers or on the Internet, so they can pay the very people who bring these stories to us. Since that is the dynamic of news coverage, it would be naïve to think that news stories are not presented in such a way as to provide good entertainment, even if they are good journalism at the same time.

For some, the riots of Ferguson can be seen as clear evidence that certain types of people are inferior. It was interesting to me as I was reading comments on Facebook and in other places, that the riots in Ferguson were presented as clear evidence on the part of some that the police of course had to be right. “Those people” simply are not capable of keeping their communities safe, their behavior proves it, and so what are the police to do? The implication was that because African Americans are largely the makeup of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, but clearly it demonstrated some generalization that could be made about them.

What is forgotten in the situation is that riots occur for even the most trivial of events. A sports team wins a national championship of some kind, and people  destroy property, loot stores, and even burn buildings. These actions are not limited to one race or another. Moreover, to see these riots simply as criminal activity, or is indicative of everyone who raises serious questions about the state of race relations in this country in the treatment of that people of color receive at the hands of police misses the point.

There are times, over the course of my life is a priest, where I’ve celebrated mass in jails. I do so currently. I have learned the opportunities people are given are simply not equal. We may all be created equal, but the circumstances into which we are born are not equal. I cannot but help think how my life might be different, if the circumstances under which I was born with different. I was raised by two parents, lived in a community that was highly supportive of its public schools, to the point where I had more than many other kids had available to them in my public schools. I was encouraged to do well in school, and college was more than simply a remote possibility but an expectation.

As I hear the stories of the opportunities, or lack thereof, of the people I encounter in the jail, I begin to wonder if I could have done any better, if the circumstances they experienced in their lives had been the circumstances that I was given. Too many children in this country who fall into crime are not only persons of color, but come from single-parent families, in neighborhoods where violence is simply too prevalent, economic opportunities have faded away, schools not only do not have the current resources, the resources they do have are inadequate because history books are outdated and technology is sparse. So consistent is the cycle that occurs in too many schools which serve a large number of the poor, there is an expression, the “school to prison pipeline.”

And so what do we do about this? Of course, given the complexity I have been speaking about, it is not simply a case where a simple solution can be provided. As a starting point, I believe it needs to be acknowledged there is truth to all the narratives that are coming from Ferguson. Persons of color are treated differently by police as documented by numerous studies. Crime is real, and police officers face daily too many instances where split second decisions must be made in an environment were violence is far too prevalent. Making such decisions in the comfort of my living room chair is one thing. Making it in split second moments is quite another. Human beings commit crimes, whether they are persons of color or not.

Could Michael Brown have stolen cigars? Of course. Nineteen year olds make impetuous, foolish decisions all of the time. Could Darren Wilson have been motivated by underlying racism that influenced the decisions he made? Of course. Were all protesters supportive of the looting and burning of buildings? Of course not. Is there a single narrative that tells the whole story about Ferguson? Of course not.

The challenge, in my opinion is recognizing what is happening in Ferguson is not simply about Ferguson. It is committing to trying to understand the loud voices on all sides, and to identify the values their actions represent. It is not about Darren Wilson or Michael Brown. It is for some, but not for all. Some are protesting on behalf of Michael Brown, or speaking out on behalf of Darren Wilson. There are those protesters who are speaking out because there is a double standard that all too often makes them the victims. Police officers each and every day place their lives at risk which we often do not hear about. They encounter the most unpleasant of situations, and do so most of the time with dignity and grace. And there are opportunists who will take advantage of circumstances to wreak havoc. The burning of buildings and the looting of stores, those actions are criminal, done by criminals, just as they were in San Francisco after the Giants won the World Series.

The starting point is the commitment to really wanting a solution. And that begins when we can examine the particular events in our lives and our generalized conclusions, to discover where it is each of us needs to change, to grow, to repent. All of us are in need of repentance and all of us commit to the evil that is pervasive in our world today. All of us kick into the pool of sin that impacts our world. And all of us are impacted by the sin of the world. We must admit that life is not simply about “having a bad day” or doing something “on accident”. Each of us, and all of us, make deliberate decisions to do evil.

As a result, we too often see things in contraries. It is either this or that, it is all or nothing, it is either or. We often do this so that we can avoid the harsh self-reflection that is necessary to name our sins for what they are. It is an unwillingness to examine societal sin too, with the belief that it is unpatriotic to do so. But we see very clearly the results of not truly wanting to work with those on the other “side”. Clearly there are those who refuse to work with President Obama, and those who dismiss the concerns of the Tea Party. Anything the president proposes is doomed in certain circles before it is even read.

But nothing will change if we do not commit ourselves to wanting success. If I do not have a genuine commitment to eliminate poverty, to help the poor, any conversation about how to help solve poverty is doomed from the start. If I will not acknowledge that there is crime in some of these inner city neighborhoods, if I will not get to know people beyond whatever stereotypes I have created, and help facilitate honest self-assessment by all, then all attempt to solve the problem is taken away.

Wanting to solve the problem is wanting to avoid the temptation to see things in overly simplistic terms. The problem of race in this country is as much a problem of poverty as it is race. It is a problem that has its genesis in “throwing away” schools, opposing solutions solely on the basis of which “side” proposed it, it is regaining a sense that there is a need for seeing problems not through political parties, or skin color, social class, gender, or any other way we classify ourselves.

It means gathering information from a variety of news sources, not just our favorites. It means deliberately seeking out different points of view in the spirit of true dialogue, so we avoid the danger of becoming too monolithic. It means entertaining in all things the possibility that our way of seeing things, our views, and our opinions just might be wrong. It means avoiding having conversations that are really two simultaneous monologues and not a common search for the truth.

As long as we act from a perspective that simply puts people on the other “side”, refuses to acknowledge the different experiences of people not only in the United States but around the world (and how those experiences shape our opinions), and ridiculing and belittling other people, isolating ourselves from interacting and living with people different from ourselves, we consign ourselves to accept the status quo and make it worse.

I do not know everything that happened that afternoon in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot, and neither does anyone else. What I do know is that with the issue of race, as with so many other issues (concerns about police behavior and a whole host of other problems), I have to commit to wanting a solution. Wanting a solution means developing that commitment expressed in a promise to listen to each other, to seek the truth together, and and to develop an attitude that desires a growth together in the truth.

We face a paralysis currently that seems to render any solution, even on the smallest of problems, impossible. Maybe before anything else, we need to consider that before we are defined as Republicans or Democrats, poor or rich, male or female, Black or Latino or Asian or Native American or whatever we use for our identification we focus first on what we all share in common. Above all else, we are all human. And maybe the more we focus on this, the more likely it is we will find solutions to the complex problems of our day.

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