I know that America, I know it very well. And I know exactly what it was thinking when the grand jury’s decision came down in Ferguson and the country erupted in protest and debate. I know because I grew up in Missouri, in the opposite corner of the state where there are far fewer blacks and a lot of white people sympathizing with Officer Darren Wilson. Those thoughts can range from padded (Officer Wilson was just doing his job), to blatantly racist and directed at the victim. But it is one thing to think, another to speak.
A generation ago, in that white America of my youth, those thoughts would have been kept private and quickly swept out of the mind by the guilt that weighs on populations with unwashed stains in their pasts. One might have vaguely perceived this kind of thought from far more subtle comments among immediate family members. Though such thought, for example on the Rodney King riots in 1992 or even the OJ Simpson verdict in 1995, was largely one’s own to keep. For racism (which has always breathed healthfully in all corners of the nation) was a suppressed topic in this white America, off-limits in polite society and even taboo like drug addiction, shell shock or breast feeding. It was there, however, very present among us, a silent heavy figure that stood in the room with which one never made eye contact. Despite this reticence, the thesis is forever unchanging: blacks are lazy, untrustworthy and do not have strong family values. If race weren’t divisive enough, there is also the cumbersome element of Puritan ethics that is well-connected to this issue. This white America I’m talking about has never been quite so racist against Asian, Hispanic or peoples of other colors as the idle hand, or the violent one for that matter, is more often perceived as being black. This element too, was one to blanket.
With the Ferguson debate, we’ve witnessed a breach in this quietude. Empowered by the “isolated” protection consented by the nature of social media, this white America has begun to talk outside the private realm. You see it in brief sarcastic posts: “Can you swing by Ferguson and get me a bottle of Jack Daniels?” You also see in mentions that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks never looted. This particular example hints at an internal conflict between pride in the accomplishments of these black Americans and disapproval of what they are seeing in Ferguson on the primetime news. This white America is starting to say what it thinks: work rather than steal, and don’t assault those tasked with protecting the community. It’s an uncomfortable debate to put on the table. These thoughts are extraordinarily simplistic, but strikingly real in the minds of this white America that feels dragged down in the wake of the global financial crisis, unarmed by the lack of aggressiveness in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, uneasy with the nation’s predicted decline, caught up in extreme partisan politics and threatened by issues like immigration, social mobility, race relations and law enforcement reform.
And this is where the real danger lies. There is a lot to be afraid of in the US right now and, as we know, fear breeds hate.
Plato insightfully wrote, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” America is no longer a child – including this white America – and in 2014 there is plenty of light on the reality surrounding communities like Ferguson. We know that black mothers teach their little boys not to run with objects as not to be suspected of robbery, and thus avoid being shot by the police. We know that the war on drugs created racial disparity in the criminal justice system mainly affecting black men and leaving serious consequences on the black family. We know that America is still segregated well beyond the days of Jim Crow and that there is a deep link between race, poverty and crime. We know that the heavy presence of weapons among the masses motivates an arms race with law enforcement. And we know that at least nine more unarmed black men have been shot by police since Michael Brown died in Ferguson.
Musician and producer Pharrell Williams hit the nail on the head when Ebony asked him if he saw the video allegedly showing Michael Brown stealing from a convenience store minutes before his death. His answer: “It looked very bully-ish; that in itself I had a problem with. Not with the kid, but with whatever happened in his life for him to arrive at a place where that behavior is ok. Why aren’t we talking about that?”
All of America today is obligated to ask not only whether this unarmed black teen deserved to die, but also why he was acting the way he did. It also needs to question why rioters went to extremes. This is no longer a question of race alone, but of class, social mobility and even of a culture of violence.
The nation is deep in thought on these matters as protesters push the idea of a new social movement and a new era of civil rights. The nature of this thought will partly determine whether the United States will continue to be a progressive nation known for begetting inequality and then bravely defeating it. Much will depend on this white America and whether it will take the time to understand – and even speak up about – what is really happening in black America.