by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law, (@atibaellis)
In a previous post, I discussed the triumph of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage sounded the death knell of legalized white supremacy and promised an era of equal opportunity. With the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent civil unrest and siege policing in Ferguson, Mo., we must recognize another reoccurrence reminiscent of fifty years ago -- protest and in response to enduring racial subjugation.
The Ferguson situation is about the unjustified death of a Black youth (and the fact that this happens all too often in America). This happened in the context of the reality of structural inequality in America that civil rights policy has failed to address. As I argued in that earlier post, formal equality does not go far enough to remedy the enduring legacies of white supremacy, legacies that keep repeating themselves in police violence, political underrepresentation, and minority economic stagnation. It fosters a de facto second-class society for people of color without the economic wherewithal to navigate the system.
This structural reality exists and replicates notwithstanding the good intentions of the law or of people who rely on formal equality as remedy. Daria Roithmayr, Ian Haney Lopez, and Michelle Alexander have provided lucid scholarly explanations of different facets of 21st century racism. The situation in Ferguson illustrates this reality in a number of ways.
First, the shooting of Michael Brown offers a view on the reality of the enduring abuse that people of color suffer at the hands of the police. The problems of racial profiling, the use of excessive force by police departments, and the violence suffered by Black men and boys in particular has been well documented. To take just one source: the ACLU has written numerous accounts about racial profiling in the United States. What their work makes clear is that the police disproportionately target minorities, and particularly minority youth because of their race. And as a recent post on their blog has made clear, such profiling, and the tragic deaths that accompany it, are all too common in the United States. And for those minority youth that survive these encounters, they are disproportionately incarcerated. The Sentencing Project has documented not only the 500 percent increase in incarceration rates in U.S. prisons generally over the last century, but the fact that a Black male under 35 has a 1 in 10 chance of being incarcerated.
Second, as others have noted, Ferguson is two-thirds Black and one-third white, yet its mayor and five of the six members of its city council are white. And the overwhelming majority of its police force is white. And, as The New York Times has reported, this segregated power structure is the product of a long history of racial tension. The patterns of overzealous policing and unrepresentative governance make clear that the authorities in Ferguson are out of touch with the interests of the majority of people in Ferguson. This suggests a failure of competitive politics and a resistance of the government in Ferguson to hear the interests of its people. (Even when activists in Ferguson have sought to register people to vote – presumably to encourage people to use the democratic process rather than self-help violence – this too becomes highly contested.)