Sunday, August 9, 2015

How Has Ferguson Changed You?

One year ago, Michael Brown was killed. I believe we have yet to see the most profound consequences of that day, but the past twelve months have brought other wrenching events, new discussions, and policy shifts. For better or worse, Americans have changed. The polling tells us that Americans of all backgrounds have significantly different views on racism and inequality than we did one year ago.

How have your views changed?

It's worth thinking about. Whatever knowledge and assumptions you carried on August 9, 2014, the 365 days since then have provided a lot of new information. Only the most foolish or inattentive among us would not have been changed in some way. Here's how Ferguson and the past year changed me.*

1) Ferguson gave me permission to protest. 

Like many Americans, on August 8, 2014, I knew something was horribly wrong. Indeed, I had learned about it and tried to live it for over six years. But to be honest, I was quiescent. I had settled into a relative silence. I had given a paper about the roots of racial inequality and segregation at a conference in Milwaukee earlier that year. During the Q and A someone asked me what was to be done about it now. I forlornly said that the only hope I could see was a mass social movement to shift the boundaries of what was politically possible. It seemed a small hope indeed.

By August of 2014, I had spent three years in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. I felt disconnected, and as so often happens, my deep-seated racism continued to resurface. I would question my beliefs. Maybe I was making too big a deal about this racial inequality stuff? Maybe I was blowing it out of proportion? Maybe all the people who indicated to me that I had gone off the rails were right?

Michael Brown was shot 9 days after we moved to Philadelphia. I would have experienced that moment differently had I still been living in that White suburb in Ohio. But my new surroundings and the emergence of street protest in the face of militarized police fortified me. It told me that I wasn't crazy. It dramatized what I had learned to be true but sometimes found hard to believe. It gave me permission to protest. It made it ok for even a mild-mannered guy like me to be on the street in a supporting role.

2) Ferguson taught me the importance of street protest.

Before August 9, I thought that street protest was for the 1960s and we had entered a new era in which other tactics were necessary. There is a common belief among both White and Black Americans that racial discrimination or police behavior has grown worse in recent years. I'm quite sure that's not true. Instead, the demands Black Americans have been making for decades are finally drawing the attention of the nation. Street protest did that.

As with all these lessons, this insight was inseparable from my academic work during the past year. In William Chafe's classic study of Greensboro, North Carolina, Civilities and Civil Rights, he masterfully explores the power dynamics of White and Black Greensboro and the relation between them. He writes that the White elite operated with a powerful ideology, the "progressive mystique." This sensibility combined unfailing civility, faith in dialogue and reasoned discussion, paternal care for those less fortunate, and a respectable boosterism for a city that was invariably described as a place where "race relations" were good and everyone was making progress. For the White power structure of Greensboro, civility was more important than substantive action. Process was more important than outcome.

Black activists in Greensboro kept pushing against this progressive mystique, but were unheard. The rules of communication in Greensboro were such that Black complaints were invariably snuffed out. After all, they couldn't possibly be true: "race relations" were good, Whites were civil, and White elites supported Black institutions. What could be wrong?

Greensboro was of course where the sit-ins began in 1960 before spreading across the South. In Greensboro, massive street protest followed. Only the arrival of these street protests awakened White residents of Greensboro to the reality of Black dissatisfaction. No amount of civil dialogue did that. No amount of polite pleading. Only militant street protest, with the threat of outright violence and chaos, forced the White power structure to move.

3) Ferguson showed me the limits of moral persuasion. 

What was true in Greensboro remains too true today. Don't like the tactics of Black protesters? Don't like all the shouting and cursing and militancy? Maybe we should have listened years ago when Black leaders politely pointed out the scale of institutional racism and calmly proposed solutions. Militant protest is a form of communication. One of the only forms of Black communication most White Americans can hear.

Remember, most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Many celebrated when Dr. King was assassinated. The civil rights movement won its victories not only by moral persuasion, but by raising the cost of inaction so high that the White power structure was forced to act. Dr. King lived his final years as a reviled and unpopular figure. We're not trying to win a popularity contest. We're trying to win justice and freedom. And that means forcing a racist society to do what it doesn't want to do. 

4) Ferguson showed me the depths of White denial. 

Though the polls have moved in encouraging directions, we have also witnessed outright denial of reality from influential media figures, politicians, and the White public. One recent poll showed that a majority of Whites do not believe the justice system is biased. We've seen the denial expressed in more concrete form. In Cleveland, hundreds of White rallied to support the police after the murder of Tamir Rice. In Ferguson, millions of Whites believed the police behaved reasonably during protests. In Baltimore, the police alleged that gang members had called a truce to join together to target cops. Many of us knew intuitively right away that the charge was baseless. It didn't make sense. But it was widely reported by the media, raising tensions and White fears. It turned out to be a lie. Untold numbers of Americans have supported the Confederate flag. The ignorance our education system and racist culture impose make that position ordinary, but no less indefensible. In ways broader than the Confederate flag, Ferguson revealed the extent to which Americans do not want to know their history. From housing segregation to police brutality, we have an accessible history that tells us why things are the way they are. Yet the amnesia on offer from figures like O'Reilly and Limbaugh seems to be more popular.

5) Ferguson taught me to believe my experience and the experience of others pertaining to police forces.

In Chicago I had seen blatant racism from police officers first hand. I took it with a grain of salt. I certainly had a negative view of the police, but I couldn't imagine the scale of incompetence and institutional violence and racism that would be revealed in the year after Ferguson. I've become far more skeptical of public sector unions. Yet I also came to see the police not as particularly bad actors, but as the logical outgrowth of public wishes.

6) Ferguson showed me that asserting the full humanity of Black people is controversial in America.

This is the kind of claim that seems either obvious or absurd, depending on the reader. But to be around real Black people as neighbors and church members and friends is to realize that much of the White American imagination is dealing in abstractions. We substitute an inherited racist wisdom for real human contact. You see it in moments of high tension like Ferguson and Baltimore. Absurd rumors and fears fill the air, and White Americans find them plausible. But we don't want to know the truth. For if Black people are just people, then their oppressed state implicates the entire American social order. The White American imagination is malleable, insidious, and a source of deep comfort to millions of Americans.

*This post is about me. How Ferguson changed young Black people is much more important. I am writing about what I know, and I hope many others will reflect on their own experience. 


  1. Hello Jesse,
    I discovered your blog just this week. Thank you very much for writing about the blind spots of mainstream white American culture, and especially of mainstream White evangelicalism. As a historian, do you have anything more to share about the role which White American Evangelicalism has played in the revival of racism in this country? I'd be particularly interested in hearing about the role played by prominent Dominionist leaders, as well as figures like James Dobson and the Family Research Council.

    Also, I am linking your blog to my blog, The Well Run Dry.

    1. Thank you for your comment and the kind words on your blog. I really appreciate it!

      Good question too. I really don't know about the Dominionist leaders. My go-to text for White evanglicalism is still Emerson and Smith's Divided by Faith, but there is a lot of good historical scholarship out there too, such as Carolyn Dupont's new book, Mississippi Praying. But we definitely know more about southern White evangelicals than about those in the North and West. I'm actually working on a project this fall about White evangelicals beyond the South during and after the civil rights movement. To me, one of the most interesting questions is: how did White evangelicals become colorblind? There were not always so, but now this secular ideology has become an article of faith among many White evangelicals, with all sorts of problematic results.