August 21, 2014

Seeing Ferguson Through the Lens of Structural Racism


Atiba R. Ellis, Ferguson, Michael Brown, Mo., structrual racisim

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.)

Finally, at the root of Ferguson as exemplar of structural racism is the fact of the economic distress of the people who live there.Brookings Institute fellow Elizabeth Kneebone wrote about the economic challenges that Ferguson faces as one of many counties across America that are facing increasing suburban poverty. As she notes, unemployment in Ferguson as of 2012 is at 13 percent. Over the 2000s decade, the number of people using federal housing vouchers climbed from 300 to 800. And Kneebone observes that one out of every four persons in Ferguson lives below the federal poverty line.

What is clear is that the riots in Ferguson take place at the intersection of aggressive racialized policing, racial segregation and economic distress. The violence we saw represents not only a reaction to Michael Brown’s death, but also the deep problem of American inequality – the structural racism that manifests through the criminalization of minorities, the persistence of segregation, and the impoverishment of communities of color.

This reality is often shielded -- and ignored -- by white America. Recent opinion polling by the Pew Center reveals that, “Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown ‘raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.’”  The Pew Center also noted in this report that their research found a similar racial divide about the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.

It is this reality of structural racism, an enduring inequality that exists across the country that oppresses people of color who live between the vice grips of racist actions and enduring poverty, must be confronted by our society as a whole.  The violence in Ferguson is merely a reaction to this deeper problem.  Brittney Cooper sums up the connection this way:

Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic.

Formal equality was the prescription for the problem of racial inequality in 1964. Then, like now, the medicine is insufficient. The structural forces of racist policing, segregation, political disempowerment and entrenched poverty cut against our collective vision of civil rights -- that everyone, despite race or social status -- would be entitled to equality. Ferguson is a wake-up call to solve this deeper problem.

[image via peoplesworld]