The policy successes of the Civil Rights movement have given rise to the narrative that the worst of our racial and ethnic prejudices are behind us. Unfortunately, politics and policies show only one side of the story.
The truth is, we are still a country divided.
White Americans who look back on the 1950’s and 1960’s with the nostalgia of Mayberry may be surprised to discover how radically different their black friends and neighbors interpret the past, and the present.
The Trayvon Martin shooting was a good example. In general, blacks saw that event as an outrageous display of unjust violence. Whites tended to see Martin’s death as an isolated incident, an unfortunate tragedy that should have been avoided, but, in any case, doesn’t tell us much about society or injustice on a larger scale.
Ferguson, Missouri is worse.
This time, it is a police officer killing a teenager who, according to witnesses, had dropped to his knees with his hands in the air. This is not a neighborhood watchman with a hero complex; it’s an officer invested with trust and authority. And though not all of the details of the altercation are clear (and we shouldn’t confuse rushing to judgment with enacting justice), the protests and calls for transparency are certainly understandable.
That’s why the unfolding situation in Ferguson is disturbing on a number of levels: the militarized police in the streets of Ferguson, the arrests of journalists, the overreach of authorities charged with maintaining the peace during these protests, not shutting them down.
The events of Ferguson are heartbreaking and harrowing. Heartbreaking because the pain of this community is palpable. Harrowing because the response of the authorities seems so utterly out of proportion that one can’t help but wonder, Who’s next?
Ferguson is ripping the bandages off the racial wounds we thought were healing but instead are full of infection.
It is exposing the scabs of our failure to live up to the ideals put forth in our Declaration of Independence.
It is exposing the ongoing, deeply rooted structures of society that continue to feed and reinforce our prejudices.
It is exposing how, decades after desegregation, we we have self-segregated into neighborhoods and suburbs. Economic stagnation, family breakdown, and a drug culture are three strands of a noose with strangling force, suppressing people on the margins as the rest of society moves forward, blithely unaware of the realities faced by their fellow citizens across town.
Too many of us think: If we can just contain the problem, our way of life won’t be affected. Self-preservation and the support for our own way of life closes our ears to the cries around us.
But make no mistake. Privilege is real, and so is oppression. We live in the same country, in different worlds. The town of Ferguson is speaking up; this is the time to listen, and pray for justice.