Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Ferguson

For many months now, the news has been intermittently ablaze with the happenings in Ferguson.  I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said on the immediate issue, the murder by police of an unarmed young man.  I don't think there is much to say--as in the Trayvon Martin case years ago, I feel there is no justification for anyone to take the life of an unarmed boy, whether or not he was "a good kid".  I don't understand how this affirmation could be controversial; no one would want their child to be murdered by the police or by anyone else.  And if we believe in a shared humanity with the rest of the world, or at least with our fellow Americans, or in my case even just with my fellow Midwesterners, then we must see clearly that when any child is murdered, it's everyone's child.  My own biological children's skin color may make them more or less likely to suffer the same fate as poor Michael Brown, but I'd have to be crazy to think that any child's murder is somehow not my problem, not of concern to me and my family.

So again, my thoughts on the Michael Brown shooting are pretty straightforward.  I recognize the role that race played in his death, and in the Ferguson police department's use of excessive force to respond to demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.  If you want to read more about the very clear racial issues that enter into and that have been brought to the fore by what's going on in Ferguson, here is a decent breakdown of that.

But as I argued in a post in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's murder, I feel that sometimes we in the US fixate so much on race that we are blinded to some other, parallel threads, or even to some trends and issues that are larger than race.  For instance, the above-cited article by Janee Woods seems to be implicitly arguing that racism is not only an evil affecting US society, but in fact the prime evil that trumps all others.  See for example her seeming advice to ditch any racist friends (point 10).  I can understand her focus on racism as a non-negotiable dealbreaker for a friendship, because her work and her passion is in the field of dismantling racism.  But if I or anyone else are to be consistent, we can't stick just to racism; no, we have to judge all wrong thinking, all intolerance, all oppression as invalid.  I am theoretically willing to commit to that.  However, if I am to cut off contact with all racists, and for that matter anyone who advocates directly or indirectly the oppressive status quo, I would have to cease interacting with just about everyone I know.  Woods rightly argues that, "you can be the popular person who stands with the oppressor or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people".  But this is a false dichotomy, and for me it is almost as bad to stand with the oppressor as to be someone who adheres to all the right causes but isolates himself from the very humans he needs to join those causes (and whom he is ultimately advocating in favor of).  I have learned the hard way that I need to accept and work with the flawed humanity I'm surrounded by and a part of (just as others will hopefully accept my imperfections), not to insist on an impossible moral purity.  I've known corrupt people and alcoholics who were fierce enemies of institutionalized racism, and racists who were allies in the cause of economic justice.  You've got to work with the people around you, not the angels above.

On a historical and society-wide level, I'd actually agree with the assertion that racism is the fundamental sin that has been the primary shaper of problems in the US, if that is indeed the argument Woods is making.  Slavery and its aftermath of personal and institutionalized racism have defined yesterday's and today's US like no other force I can think of.  And Woods's 12 tips for white folks that want to dismantle entrenched racism are all spot-on.  My only gripe with her is that, while understandable, her couching her advice for dismantling a racist system in the context of Michael Brown's death risks missing all the other issues raised around this tragic event, issues that I would argue certainly include race but also extend far beyond it.

In short, I feel that the protests in Ferguson are highlighting many realities about race in the United States, but there are also lots of other things going on that can both inform and be informed by the current situation.  The two major trends I see other than race that have come to the fore are the militarization of the police and our society in general, and the interface of suburbanization and social problems in the US.

One night I heard an excellent radio program about the militarization of police forces in the US.  Apparently municipal PDs can request used military-grade equipment for free from the Pentagon, as well as applying for federal funds to stock up on additional high-powered assault rifles, armored vehicles, and the like.  Much of these requests bypass the normal civilian control of the police department, and all this in a nationwide context of far less crime than there was decades ago.  According to the radio program, many police departments are now laden with this war machinery, and they put it to zealous overuse, using SWAT teams to serve warrants on suspects of nonviolent offenses, or placing snipers on buildings in response to protests like we are seeing in Ferguson, MO.  The radio host made the point that the mere possession of this heavy weaponry influences and shapes the mentality that the police force brings to its job.  It is the bizarre inverted machismo warrior culture gone haywire, where men-boys looking to prove themselves join a police force instead of (or after) the armed forces.  Valor on the battlefield consists in the annihilation of enemies, but this impulse is totally out of place for police in a democracy, whose job is to serve and protect fellow citizens, to keep the peace instead of waging war.

Apologists for this militarization of our police forces cite increasing, omnipresent danger from raging criminals.  This is patently false, since US society is by almost all measures safer today than at any point in its recorded history.  Beyond the flawed facts though, the more we as a society (and the police that form an important part of our society) succumb to this sort of paranoid, order-at-all-costs thinking, the more we chisel away at the foundations of our democracy, of a sense of shared purpose, shared values, shared humanity.  Totalitarianism could be said to be the quest for an absolutely perfect order.  Our democracy does not aspire to perfect order, but rather seeks a more perfect union, a direction to aspire in yet with the recognition that you will never get there.  Indeed, moving towards unity and harmony often goes hand in hand with a society that looks less quiet and orderly.  Democracy is messy and chaotic, not polished and clean.

In any case, if a recent study is to be believed, our polis is increasingly looking like a state run by the few at the expense of the many.  In this light, it makes sense that the powers that be (and even the rest of us) resort to increasing force, firepower, and secrecy to maintain order.

The second theme that really jumped out at me in the news coverage of Ferguson was the dynamics of race, class, and migration to the suburbs.  As this article and this article point out, Ferguson presents a case that doesn't conform to our typical mental scheme of black inner-cities juxtaposed with white suburbs, because Ferguson itself is a suburb, and a mainly black suburb.  To me this status of Ferguson as a marginalized black suburb speaks to a larger theme of how we in the US define our own wellbeing and prosperity, in short our human development.

The inner city came to be synonymous with decay and social dysfunction because of a long-standing custom in the US to define our own wellbeing and social status not positively in terms of the good things we have, but rather negatively in terms of who is below us on the social ladder.  This relative social position is composed by a shifting interplay of race and class.  In most Northern US cities, whites seem to have defined their own satisfaction in life by how much they could exclude and spit on nonwhites.  Newly-arrived immigrants were initially treated as nonwhites, but their economic and social advancement went hand-in-hand with their transitioning from oppressed to oppressors, as they physically moved away from the fellow immigrants, and especially the black migrants, they now considered inferior to themselves.  For a long time economically ascendent blacks in the Northern ghettoes were forced to live side-by-side with their poorer brethren, but as soon as changing legal and social mores allowed them to, black professionals left the inner city in droves, leaving behind the archetypal depressed black inner cities that pop to most people's heads when they think of Detroit or Cleveland or Oakland.

The common thread here is that the drive to feel like you are above some other slice of humanity has led to a recurring, never-ending cycle of migration to farther and farther suburbs.  First Anglo whites, then ethnic whites, then professional blacks, instead of identifying themselves with their neighbors, have sought to distance themselves from those neighbors that they believe to be inferior to them.  What else could explain the massive migration to suburbs that offer objectively lower living standards than most urban centers (more floods, longer commuting time, poorer infrastructure, less access to commerce and other community amenities, physical conditions that favor obesity and feelings of isolation)? 

This trend continues today, on large and small scales.  The inner city of today becomes less and less appealing for people to live in, thus making real what had been a silly conceit of those arrogant professionals who thought their neighborhoods to be beneath them.  Now many neighborhoods really are beneath the dignity of any human being.  There are few businesses, lots of violence, social dysfunction.  Hell, just mowing the lawn takes up all the time of anyone trying to keep up appearances, since each resident now has to take care of upwards of six vacant lots, none of which belong to them.  You'd be amazed at how much time the few remaining middle-class people in the ghetto spend on a rider mower!  Anyone remotely advantaged or motivated to live in objectively better conditions leaves these blighted areas as soon as they can, hence deepening their desolation.

It even happens in relatively decent areas, as I've seen occurring in my mixed-income area in Arlington, VA.  Our neighborhood has lots of amenities like a library, parks, playgrounds, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and churches, all within walking distance.  It is a perfectly fine place to live.  But many white parents, perhaps nervous about their kids' interacting too much with brown people, move to farther suburbs when their kids reach school age.  They obssessively check websites that grade schools based on how many dirty blacks and immigrants how they score on standardized tests or something, and these websites tell them that they must move to whiter suburbs with better schools.  This is of course bullshit, because most of these parents spend their time checking their iPhone or shushing their kids instead of developing their intellect and their capacity for critical thought, so I don't believe they're that concerned about real education (they are, of course, concerned about the type of exclusive credentials that will allow their kids to continue the cycle of finding personal satisfaction by stepping on others).

Anyway, the problem is that then the schools in my neighborhood do suffer somewhat, because the parents and kids with the most social capital and the highest disposable incomes (read investments in extracurricular enrichment) end up leaving.  Seeing this, and aspiring themselves to the lifestyle of excluding and stepping on others, the relatively upwardly-mobile Latino neighbors in our area then follow the whites to farther suburbs.  Many people close to us have succumbed to this logic.  Often they too are trying to get away from all the dirty brown people (which of course doesn't describe them--they're special, clean brown people).  We even had a Colombian-American friend who was lamenting the racism her kid encountered at his all-white school.  We asked her why she didn't move to a neighborhood with more Colombians, and she said, "No, they're disgusting.  Their dogs are always shitting on the sidewalk!"

At this point the schools really do start suffering, because all the middle-class people have pulled their kids out, and those who are left behind are the proletarian immigrant masses who don't have much time or resources to invest in their kids' formal schooling.  They, self-loathing and looking to get away from people who look and act like them, also move farther out as soon as they can.  At this point, the poor rich white folks have to move again, because the brown people they were trying to get away from ended up following them.  I imagine this is the same thing that happened in Chicago neighborhoods like South Shore that went from white mixed-class to black mixed-class to black underclass.  At each step of the way, the upwardly mobile subset of the socially "inferior" group moved closer to people they thought of as more in line with their station, but those people didn't want to be near these inferior souls, and so moved elsewhere.

One way to get around this silly game that has caused so much oppression and angst and suffering (and environmental destruction and needless construction and pathological moving from house to house!) would be if no one thought themselves superior to anyone else.  Such an attitude could give rise to a general solidarity among people, a recognition that the problems of MY COMMUNITY are problems I have a part in, and whose solutions I must have a part in, instead of our current attitude of running away from problems we blame on the other people around us.  If white Anglos had thought this way of ethnic white and black migrants, if immigrants thought this way of their fellow immigrants, if professionals and wealthy people thought this way of their less-fortunate neighbors, we would be able to develop the communities we live in, instead of a fleeting "development of ourselves" by moving elsewhere.  We wouldn't have so many problems of the concentrated poor (addiction, violence, deprivation, antisocial tendencies) or of the concentrated rich (also addiction, violence, deprivation, and antisocial tendencies).

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