Racism and Ferguson: a systemic problem requires a systemic solution

Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26
Ferguson, Missouri, protest, August 15, 2014.
Photo by Loavesofbread, via Wikimedia Commons

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective systemic as “of, relating to, or affecting the entire body.” That medical definition refers to the system of a specific body or organism, including, of course, the human body. The Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa is a systemic assault on the organs until the victim bleeds to death from the inside. But some systems are larger than those contained within the vulnerable body of a single individual. We have railway systems and highway systems, judicial systems and weapons systems, accounting systems and computer systems, and the most important system of all, our social system.

A social system outlines how a group relates to and supports the members of a society, in order to create a community that gives its people the best chance of survival, with the ideal goal being to create a successful paradigm for sustainability. As our bodies have had to adapt to a changing environment, so too our social systems have evolved into what we hope are better and better ways of dealing with friends and neighbors, and even with those whom we have chosen to label enemies.

Yet despite good intention, a social system planned by human beings will always have disastrous moments, even fatal flaws, because of the fallibility of the premises on which they are built. The systemic assault on the body of American society is evident these days in the continuing epidemic of cop-on-black intimidation, threat and murder brought to light most recently with the choke-hold killing of Eric Garner, in New York, and the shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (The subsequent violence is not part of that illness. It is a predictable side effect, though.)

Our laws, and those who represent them, are supposed to be the anti-bodies to this type of viral infection. “We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” President Obama said in a statement last Thursday, after police in military vehicles and camouflage appeared to violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of journalists and protesters in Ferguson.

Human decency isn’t regulated by law, but by a sense that we actually are all part of the same body. The anti-bodies are obviously corrupted when police officers refer to the protesters as “fucking animals,” and a faulty judicial system puts its own money-driven survival ahead of the welfare of the citizens it is meant to protect.

Even the United States Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most inoculated from the distractions of a dysfunctional society, finds itself refusing to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism in favor of some mythical, Euro-centric sense that the pendulum of discrimination has swung too far the other direction. Laws protecting the rights of disadvantaged minorities to receive the same educational opportunities of their wealthier, White counterparts don’t work, Chief Justice John Roberts said, because, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 2007)

As Slate.com’s Dahlia Lithwick pointed out after the anti-affirmative action decision in Schuette, earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent “poke[s] at Roberts [Seattle decision] with a sharp stick.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” wrote the justice, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Justice Sotomayor was describing racism as the systemic disease that has been a blight on American society, since even before the days our slave-holding Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal.”

It was only fifteen months ago that a St. Louis County, Missouri, police lieutenant was fired for allegedly telling his squad, one morning, “Let’s have a black day,” and “Let’s make the jail cells more colorful.”

“Now is the time for healing,” intoned President Obama, last week. That won’t be easy, but there is a way.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s look at another definition for systemic one can find at Merriam-Webster, that is precisely about healing a corrupted system:

“of, relating to, or being a pesticide that as used is harmless to the plant or higher animal but when absorbed into its sap or bloodstream makes the entire organism toxic to pests (as an insect or fungus).”

With Ebola, though no cure exists, scientists say the best chance at a cure is to strengthen the body’s own defense system, so it can fight off the infection and the patient can heal. That treatment, in its own way, is a systemic.

What systemic, then, must be applied to American society to rid itself of the racist scourge?

One idea to solve the issues in Ferguson is to diversify the police force. “There’s a deep undercurrent of racial frustration,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery told MSNBC‘s Jose Diaz Balart last Thursday, after he was arrested and released by local law enforcement. “In places where residents do not believe the police understand them or look like them, you are always going to start at a disadvantage in terms of these relationships.”

Experts agree that diversity of government officials and a community’s police force is laudable, “But at the same time, you can’t expect that to be a panacea,” University of Pittsburgh political science professor, Jon Hurwitz, told the CBC.

The CBC’s Mark Gollom writes:

“The problem, says Hurwitz, is that stereotypes against blacks that associate them with violence continue to persist. Hurwitz said these stereotypes are ingrained across the political spectrum, and that many blacks in the U.S. are just as susceptible​ to stereotypes of blacks as whites.”

So as a systemic solution, there’s just as much a chance that a more diverse police force would not solve the problem. It’s possible the problem is not in the racial make-up of the enforcers, but rather the way they relate to the community they serve. As Gollom put it:

“Generally, whites also perceive their experiences with police officers different than blacks, Hurwitz said, with most whites reporting they have been treated fairly and politely during their encounters.

“But blacks talk about being treated rudely and disrespectfully, Hurwitz said, even if their encounters with police were for similar reasons as whites.”

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Tuesday, one former Los Angeles cop says it’s not just the officer’s responsibility to keep tensions minimized. The “bottom line,” writes Sunil Dutta, who is now a homeland security professor at Colorado State University:

“…if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?”

So we have a huge group of citizens who feel the cops treat them “rudely and disrespectfully,” and cops who say, “Don’t threaten me,” and if we follow those rules everything will be okay. The problem is, those aren’t rules for a community to get along. They’re rules for a community cold war. It’s only a matter of time before the effort it takes to keep up the facade of a peaceful town shatters into chaos.

During the protests, there’s been looting and tear gas and arrests, Molotov cocktails and noise cannons and more arrests. Smoke, screams, blood and broken glass spread across the streets of Ferguson, as they have in so many poor and neglected neighborhoods before. Asked for calm, they shout, “No justice! No peace!”

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his CBC article, Gollom refers to a program in Boston as a “success story,” where the Boston PD reached out to community stakeholders, including Black clergy, “to forge better relationships with blacks.” But according to at least one recent study by three Harvard professors, that program, called Operation Ceasefire or the “Boston Miracle,” while successful during its nascent period in the 1990s, slipped away from the community in the 2000s. The reason for the inability of the city to maintain its “success story” was not the model, but the commitment of the city to the program.

“Our basic conclusion,” the study’s authors write, “is not that the Boston model of the 1990s has failed, but rather that the City of Boston and the Boston Police failed to pursue the policies and practices that had been so successful during the late 1990s.”

In January, after a string of homicides in Boston, the police once again reached out to the Black clergy for help, and to present “a united front against the violence that’s occurring in our streets,” according to the police superintendent in chief.

The lessons from Boston may apply in Ferguson, and other towns where there is not a concerted effort by the police to reach out to leaders in the community, and “forge better relationships.” These relationships cannot be seen as some kind of quick fix to the problem. Concentrating on ending the violence, on both sides, without addressing the underlying causes of the problems will only result in the virus of racist intolerance reestablishing itself, and destroying the community from the inside.

Like a treatment that gets the body’s own defenses to destroy a virus, the problems in our social system need to be addressed by getting an entire society to fight against a common, corrosive enemy.

Here’s the tricky part. You are our society. Your own conscience is the anti-body. Your commitment cannot flag, for our entire republic depends on you. Vote. March. Act. Love.

“Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


MLK quotes pulled from BrainyQuote.

4 thoughts on “Racism and Ferguson: a systemic problem requires a systemic solution

  1. PG, So another death of a black person at the hands of a non black person makes news and becomes a reason to discuss race in America nation wide. No need to discuss the problem of black on black crime. In the case of your blog, a analysis of a system wide failure in our society. How about discussing a different take on the current events? Let’s not rush to judgement. Lets comment on why the press is behaving in an irresponsible manner or comments on the Federal governments intrusion into a local and state crime. How about waiting until a grand jury has convened? How about a focus on the law abiding , hard working people of Ferguson, who are getting dragged into this media mess and tarnished? Maybe one can discuss the culture that Michael Brown embraced that caused him to act thuggish, steal and walk down the middle of a street? MLK may be spinning in his grave to have a progressive blogger invoke his memory for an incident like this. In my opinion, MLK”s take, would have been that Mr. Brown was ruining the fabric of the community with his behavior, language and bad character traits.


    1. There is never a good time to have a discussion about racism and discrimination in America. It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like this – not just Mike Brown’s death, but the subsequent community reaction – to have this discussion come up again.

      The demonstrations and protests and looting happened before the media showed up. The media didn’t tell the local police to come in with camo uniforms and mine resistant vehicles to quell the violence. It may be true that after a few days, the media’s presence perpetuated the story, to the point where white anarchists were coming in to Ferguson to take advantage of the scene, but the local citizens themselves quelled that violence, exposed the interlopers and disavowed their actions.

      As far as Holder getting involved, the Department of Justice is well within its right to do that, under the Civil Rights Act, and under a provision that was part of the original Brady bill.

      I have seen no indication that anyone is convicting the officer before the grand jury can complete its findings, but you see that just by convening the grand jury, things have already calmed down. All the people are asking for is justice to be pursued. That they don’t trust the DA to do it is a political matter.


  2. P B… From your picture, you look like a nice young man. In fact too young to have experienced the civil rights movement or heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak live. I know the temptation to quote him can sometimes be overwhelming but what you were probably taught in school skirted what really happened and what was only allowed by the school board. I don’t mean to diminish the rhetoric and inspiration that MLK and his non-violent protest tactics provided to the conscience and guilt of white America. But if you lived through it you would know that his tactics worked for Gandhi, but provided little more than guilt for those who make policy decisions and write legislation. More than likely we would still be waiting for legislation half a century later. What stepped up the process for what you call systemic, a term that was used much too often while I was in graduate school, was the practical side of the movement provided by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. This scared the shit out of white America and provided the will to act. By the way, there is no such thing as non-violence. There is only refusal to act in a violent manner by one side. The other side has plenty of violence to offer. Civil rights movement was systemic, meaning it produced leaders who took different paths to the same goal and it was not non-violent. When riots, burning, and looting happened and the rhetoric of Malcolm X was heard, things were expedited.


    1. Hi Bob. Thanks for this. I appreciate your perspective. Frankly, I’m not that young, actually old enough to have heard Dr. King live, but I was a child and never had the opportunity. I think your point that the tactics of the un-Kings scared white America into acting is right on, but I see the civil rights movement as the whole thing, from Rosa Parks to Martin to Cassius Clay to Malcolm. And a lot of support MLK had was from white Americans – not just the guilty, but the young, like the Freedom Riders, and many elements of the white establishment. Politicians always act slower. They test the waters, wait for it to be okay politically, and then, maybe, act. I’m aware that even a relative civil rights advocate like JFK tried to get Dr. King to postpone the 1963 March on Washington because he was afraid of riots and backlash. Sure, violence is one-sided in any non-violent movement, but idealism can move mountains, too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s