November 14, 2014

On Ferguson and inequity

I keep pondering the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Missouri.

The teen’s family continues to mourn. Seventeen hundred miles away, I share their confusion and anger. Protests, which quickly broadened beyond an isolated police shooting to shine light on inequities endured by African Americans in suburban St. Louis and across the country, are spreading. Communities are divided, both here in Oregon and on social media, by a gulf of misunderstanding between those who see what happened to Brown in the continuum of race in this divided country and those who identify instead with the plight of the white police officer.

Since Michael Brown’s death, there have been repeated reminders that white privilege does not exist in a vacuum: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s excellent series addresses head on the lingering barriers blacks face in America. "One element of white privilege today," Kristof wrote on a recent Sunday, "is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage." NYT columnist Charles M. Blow wrote eloquently of the inherent advantages in America, “the false dichotomy that chokes to death any real accountability and honesty. Systemic anti-black bias doesn’t dictate personal behavior, but it can certainly influence and inform it. And personal behavior can reinforce people’s belief that their biases are justified. So goes the cycle.”

Last night, as protests turned violent in Missouri and police in riot gear responded with tear gas, Rev. Chuck Currie tweeted about what we can do close to home to own our history and begin righting inequities. “There is an ongoing need for Oregonians to address racism just as much as there is a need for those in Missouri to address racism. #Ferguson.”

Throughout a sleepless night, my friend Andrew Mason, executive director of Open Meadow, an alternative school in Portland, was doing just that. He shared his musings with me. As I was struggling to put my thoughts in writing, Andrew’s comments reflected my own fears and frustrations. I applaud his instinct to add his voice as an ally of those outraged by history but determined not to repeat it. Here’s how the grand jury decision in Ferguson haunts Andrew:

Here’s what makes me afraid:

I am afraid my 10 year-old son will grow old in world where killing unarmed black men continues to be sanctioned by the law, just as it was 350 years ago.

I am afraid that my son will grow old in a world where young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

I am afraid of the confusion. Confusion about the justice system, confusion about my right to second-guess this system.

I am afraid of the anger, the rage. Will I alienate friends, colleagues and neighbors?

I am afraid of the silence. Will white folks let this stand? Again? Will there be no outcry? Is the silence because you don’t care, because you’re afraid to care, because you don’t know how to care, or something else? Will confusion keep us quiet?

I am afraid of the resignation, the voice of devalued black lives – “I am not surprised,” “I am used to it,” “I was expecting it.”

I am afraid of the pain and cruelty of overt racism – “Why don’t they get over it?,” “#pantsupdontloot.”

I am afraid of the isolation. Saying nothing, I am alone. Saying something, I will alienate, frighten, offend. I am afraid of the continued inability for American communities – my community, our community – to have a healthy and productive dialogue about the disparities that have resulted from a 350-year history of violence by white folks against black folks.

I am afraid of being misunderstood. Afraid,even when I can’t figure out how anyone could be understood – how anyone could make sense of this, how this could happen?

Here’s what I’m not afraid of: When I wake up tomorrow morning and my white son goes to school, I’m not afraid of him being shot by the police, by the authorities sworn to protect him. I’ve never been afraid of that. — Andrew Mason

I hear Andrew’s challenge. Along with the staff and trustees of Meyer Memorial Trust, I am committed to being a part of this dialogue.

I’ll be joining him Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 4 p.m. at the Albina Ministerial Alliance Protest in front of the Justice Center at Southwest 3rd Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Portland. I also encourage people to attend the community dialogue at Open Meadow Middle School on Saturday, November 29.

— Doug