Judging the Guilty in Ferguson
Oddly enough, it was high school sports that made me truly understand how badly I had missed the forest for the trees.
As I’ve noted here before, my younger son seems to have inherited some deeply recessive gene from either his mother’s side of the family or mine, and as a result has played varsity or JV in various sports since his freshman year. Being retired, I have had the luxury of being able to be there cheering him on for almost every game. Doing so, I have noticed two universal patterns that are directly related to the average income levels of the neighborhoods each school represents. The first pattern is that the more monied a neighborhood a school might be from, the more dominant they will be on the athletic field.
But the second and more important pattern is this: Every team from an upper or middle neighborhood is almost entirely white. If you are playing a team from a low-income neighborhood, however, the racial makeup of the team depends entirely upon the specific neighborhood — but its racial makeup will still be stunningly singular in that it might be all white, or all-black. It turns out non-whites do live in Portland, and they do so in surprising numbers. They are, however, largely partitioned off in their own out-of-the-way sections of town, that we whites might oft forget their existence.
Portland, it should be noted here, is as liberal and progressive a metropolis as you can hope to find in 2014 America — famously so, in fact. Its registered Democrats outnumber their Elephantine brethren by an almost 5 to 1 ratio, despite having one of the more robust Green Party chapters in the country. Our Occupy lasted years longer than most other cities’, and our green-friendly building codes stand as a symbol of success (or horror, depending upon the observer) for every other metropolis west of the Mississippi. Officials from Democratic stronghold-ing metropolises such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Minneapolis regularly meet with their Portland counterparts to ask, essentially, how did you do it? We’ve not only had an openly gay mayor, we’ve largely eliminated our gay district because businesses owned, operated and welcoming GLBT clientele are pretty thoroughly integrated. (Indeed, the most common criticism I hear from gays transplanted from so-called “gay friendly” cities like San Fransisco is that Portland isn’t segregated enough to make them feel at home.) And it’s about as far away as you can be from “the land of cotton” and still be in the continental United States.
And yet despite all of this, when it comes to African Americans we Portlanders — we tree-hugging, green-bleeding, arugula-eating, progressively-voting, big-government-loving Portlanders — have somehow still found a way in 2014 to largely relegate our African-American community to our most neglected and unwanted fringes. We demand their votes and their fealty, and once its been begrudgingly given we leave them to tussle for our table scraps, ask the police to keep an especially sharp eye on their neighborhoods, and gentrify their family-owned businesses into oblivion to make way for artisan pizza bakeries, goat-milk gelato vendors and newly built Starbucks locations.
Mind you, we’re still advanced enough to snark over cocktails about how Ben Carson is the wrong kind of black man.
I mean, it’s not like we’re Republicans or anything.
As everyone who isn’t in a coma knows, last week the grand jury in Ferguson, MO delivered the decision we have all known for months was coming: No charges against Officer Darren Wilson will be forthcoming. The subsequent outcry throughout the country was similar in message, if not scale, to that howling against the winds that occurred when George Zimmerman was found Not Guilty. Any justice meted out for Michael Brown, as for Trayvon Martin, will have to wait to be relegated to whatever divine Hand balances the scales in the sweet hereafter.
And for we citizens of these here United States, the grand jury’s decision is yet another reminder that our own communal sins cannot be wiped clean by a magical savior, made flesh and dressed in the dark-grey suit of a District Attorney. Because the awful and terrible truth is this: Based upon the Byzantine combination of the letter of the law, the culture of the community, and — most importantly — precedent that we use to determine guilt and innocence in our court rooms, there was little a jury could do but find Darren Wilson as worthy of being exonerated as was Zimmerman.
We tell ourselves that the obvious common thread between Michael and Trayvon is the injustice, the villainy of those few and distant actors that led to their premature deaths. This, of course, is a pretty lie. The true common denominator between Michael and Trayvon is their very arbitrariness, the way we plucked each boy as a single drop out of the vast sea of moral crimes that we allow ourselves to be blinded to every day, capriciously declaring their killers the sacrificial lambs that would make the world we had happily and constantly re-create appear somehow just and righteous after all.
There was little question that George Zimmerman had the legal right to do what he did, and even less that the Sanford police had the legal obligation to do the scantest of investigations into the shooting of an unarmed black boy. Likewise, there is little question that we give our own police overwhelming latitude to use violence indiscriminately in order to protect us against “urban gangs,” “thugs,” and those wilding youths strung out on drugs. (And let’s be honest, it was our fear of those red-lined neighborhoods that got us to allow the very tanks we watched patrolling Ferguson on CNN in the first place.) George Zimmerman may have been many terrible things, (and he really was), but he neither passed Stand Your Ground nor created the system that calculates the life of a black kid differently than a white one. Still, when Trayvon’s death was thrust upon us by the God of Slow News Days we demanded that the our own rules be broken just this once so that we could continue to pat ourselves on the back. But it turned out our own rules did not break at our whim — which should have been sign as to what to do next. In the aftermath of Zimmerman being found Not Guilty we might well have gone about systematically changing those rules, cutting their rancid grip on our own towns, courts, and political parties in an attempt to save all of the future unnamed Trayvons.
We didn’t, of course. And because of that, those future Trayvons are on us — no matter how much we want them to be on Zimmerman and the twelve jurors who followed our rules to the letter.
Similarly, we now have a very real choice in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision regarding Darren Wilson.
On the one hand, we might choose to take a step back and recognize that just as Michael Brown was a product of his environment, so was Wilson. We might recognize as well that while we might not have fired the bullets that killed Brown, we allowed the circumstances that made the a shooting of some number unarmed black boys who make a bad choice all but inevitable.
We might take seriously studies that show rather definitively that how we treat those charged with crimes is predicated greatly on their skin color, as is the far simpler process of how we identify who is and isn’t suspect at the outset. We might take the time to learn how many of the “facts” we know about the African American community are largely mythical, and ponder as a group why it is we are always so quick to believe them. We might even tackle the terribly embarrassing and frighteningly stark results of this year’s study by Stanford, which demonstrated that when we white people are actually shown that our systems are unfairly stacked against African Americans, we like those same systems even more.
We might also choose to stop comforting ourselves in the warming, reassuring lie that racism in America is a thing that happens over there, perpetrated by other people unlike ourselves. We might begin to not simply own up to to the fact that our own cities are segregated, but have conversations — actual, real-life, flesh-and-blood conversations — with those so deeply embedded in those red-lined confines that their voices go unheard. We might take the time to go through the process advocated so eloquently by Ta-Nehisi Coates, if for no other reason than to truly attempt to comprehend the scope our our collective failings that we might begin to finally reverse them.
We might choose to come to the only conclusion which all of the endless data inevitably leads: That Darren Wilson, the Ferguson Police Department, and the court system that found the actions of each appropriate are not separate from us. They are of us; we made them. And until we recognize that simple and unflinching truth, we’ll make ones just like them to take their place even if we do remove them.
That’s what we could choose to do.
Or, alternatively, we might simply choose to do what we always do:
Decide that all that is needed is to identify a black hat, publicly condemn it, and give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back. (And get back to The Voice, of course.) Insist that since those other folks across the aisle are so less advanced than we, our job is done.
We might go back to leaning heavily on the stalwart vote of African Americans, knowing well that — other than looking better than our opponents — they have grown to expect almost nothing form us in return. We might wait for the aftermath of Ferguson to dissipate into the news cycle ether, allowing us to return to the more pressing new matters of the day — after all, 2016 is just around the corner, and doesn’t Hilary’s new hair look divine?
After all, tragic events like those that occurred to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin happen all the time, every day, all over our country. One of them is bound to happen on a slow news day eventually, and when it does we can once again take this topic down from our mental shelves, shake the cobwebs from it, quake with righteous outrage, and collectively wonder aloud yet again why that one guy we know to be the true culprit is absolved by his or her own court of law. After all, a new Big Story will come along and replace it soon enough.
As I said, we have a choice.
We could go either way, really. It’s pretty much up to us.
 This makes sense when you think about it. Richer neighborhoods have some subset of kids who have played for years on teams that can afford to hire quality youth coaches, and spend summer after summer in astronomically expensive sports camps where college and pro stars teach skills both basic and advanced. Middle-income neighborhoods have some of these things, but not as much as the upper crust. Lower income neighborhoods, of course, have almost none of them.
As much as your inner-John-Hughes-movie wishes it not to be so, the results of a competition between a “rich-kid school” and a “poor-kid school” are sadly predictable, and in fact are often so lopsided as to be painful to watch and (according to my son) depressing to participate in, even as the victor.
[Picture: Little Rock Integration Protest, John C. Bledsoe photographer, via Library of Congress. Public Domain.]