On the 9th of August, Michael Brown—a black man who was 18 years old—was shot dead by a white police officer in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. The purpose of the present expository essay is to reflect on the relevance and significance of this essay. The essay will begin by describing the event itself in greater depth. Then, it will proceed to a general overview of racism within the United States. Finally, this sample social justice essay will consider the ways in the relevance and significance of this specific modern-day event is connected with the broader social and political trends that have shaped American history, as well as the implications of such connections.
Description of the Ferguson shooting
The community of Ferguson has long been characterized by racial tensions between the primarily black population and the primarily white police force. Within this context, the Ferguson shooting especially struck a spark that ignited these tensions into open conflict. This is because the popular perception of the event is that a white police officer used unnecessarily brutal force against a young black man, killing him in the process. Given the racial tensions within the community, it the racial dimension of this event obviously took center stage when interpreting the nature of the event; and the conclusion clearly followed that the event was a microcosm of the oppression of black people in general, and young black men in particular, by a white supremacist society. In this sense, the event essentially became a symbol or emblem of everything that was wrong within the Ferguson community and, by extension, the entire United States. The event was a concrete crystallization of the tensions felt by large parts of the community as a whole.
Moreover, these tensions have become renewed after the 24th of November 2014 as a result of a grand jury’s decision to not indict the police officer who was responsible for Brown’s death, spaking the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As Sanchez has put it: For the black population within Ferguson and the United States, the grand jury’s decision:
“is just the latest reminder that the American criminal justice system doesn’t treat blacks and whites the same, and that young black men in particular are often killed with impunity” (paragraph 4).
In other words, the Ferguson decision is seen as constituting concrete evidence that that racism within the United States is not a thing of the past but rather a sociological force that is still very much active within American society, sometimes with lethal consequences. This implication is exacerbated when the Ferguson shooting is viewed as part of a broader racist trend within the United States: a trend including other shootings of young black males, including Trayvon Martin in Florida, where shooter George Zimmerman was aquitted due to the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law.
Recent protests following the grand jury decision have turned violent. In Alcindor’s words:
“Ferguson residents woke Tuesday to a scorched and scarred city. Rows of burned cars in one parking lot glowed gray in the sunlight as wind blew away the ashes. Businesses became crime scenes guarded tightly by the police” (paragraph 10).
This happened despite the fact that the town of Ferguson had been preparing for protests for several weeks. Clearly, the grand jury’s decision unleashed significant anger within the community. It would seem that the black residents of Ferguson had more or less had enough of letting the police force have a monopoly on violence; they wanted to respond with violence of their own. While perhaps not the morally best response to an unjust situation, this kind of sentiment reveals the extent to which the Ferguson community has suffered from deep racial rifts, presumably over a prolonged period of time. The implications are significant if one bears in mind that the same kind of sociological dynamic must prevail within many other communities in the nation as well.
Overview of racism in the United States
In order to understand the dynamics surrounding the Ferguson shooting, it is necessary to take a broader view on the history of racism within the United States. Depending on one’s perspective, this history goes all the way back to the inception of the nation itself. For example, the Native Americans inhabited the North American continent before the arrival of Columbus; and the emergence of the United States as the world currently knows it depended on the large-scale death and/or displacement of this population. Some people, such as Mercier, call this historical event a genocide. There is considerable debate among different parties over whether this is an overstatement. For present purposes, though, the important thing to understand is that the origins of America consisted of the displacement of a population of non-white persons by a population of white persons. Whatever one’s perspective may be, it is somewhat difficult to ignore the racial dimension of this event.
Of course, the racism of the early United States became considerably more explicit and indisputable with the emergence of the institution of slavery. This institution was based on overtly racist ideology. Moreover, even the original Constitution of the United States affirms the validity of slavery, containing infamous provisions such as the Three-Fifths Compromise, which declares that a slave can be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taking a census (article 1, section 2, paragraph 3). Slavery continued until the 1860s, and it was only the victory of the North in the Civil War that resulted in the permanent abolition of the institution. It is somewhat startling to realize that this happened a mere 150 years ago. In any event, it is clear that racism played a foundation role in the early development of the nation, and that most of the blacks currently within the nation are the descendants of the slave population. This historical memory continues to have profound implications for the present.
More recent history
Of course, the end of the formal institution of slavery did not imply the end of racism as such within the United States. Over the course of the next century, systematic discrimination against black people remained the norm within the nation. It would be fair to suggest that real progress (as opposed to merely formal progress) was not in fact made until the 1960s and the civil rights movement, a full century after the events of the Civil War. For example, segregation of schools on a racial basis was commonplace, and it was not until the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that this practice was legally abolished. Likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in the year 1963, and the contents of that speech testified to how much work still remained to be done regarding racism at even so late a date.
One implication of this recent history is that middle-aged black people today were born into a racist society that was just in the process of making meaningful changes, and elderly black people today would have direct memories of how the United States used to be before the civil rights movement. In this context, it would be absurd to conclude that racism in the United States is a thing of the past, insofar as there are still people alive today who can vividly remember it.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that there still remains a great deal of work to be done. As touched on in a previous blog post from Ultius, impoverished neighborhoods within inner city settings often have highly disproportionate concentrations of black people. There is surely a connection between this present-day situation of the black population on the one hand and the history of the black population within the United States on the other: it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is a relationship between the historical subjugation of blacks within American society and their ongoing plight within the same society. Members of the black population would seem to still experience difficulties with becoming full participants in the institutions of American society. For examples, the black population is generally less educated than the white population; and as Richardson and Norris have indicated, they also have compromised access to the national healthcare system relative to the white population. The historical disparities between white people and black people thus continue to impact the real lives of Americans in the present day.
Relationship to the Ferguson shooting
Given this historical context, it becomes far easier to understand the sociological dynamics surrounding the Ferguson shooting and increased racism in America. For example, one could ask: Why is a community that is composed predominantly of blacks policed by a force that is composed predominantly of whites? Phrased in this way, one realizes that this present-day dynamic within the Ferguson community mirrors the unequal power relations between blacks and whites that prevailed under the institution of slavery: the white people were the masters, and they were free to control black people and more or less treat the latter in whatever way they wanted. Likewise, as Sanchez has indicated:
“Some people compared the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death to a lynching in the old South. They drew parallels to a time of public hangings, when mobs killed blacks, sometimes for perceived infractions such as stealing, and left the bodies in public to sow fears” (paragraph 22).
Of course, these are only analogies, and they must not be taken in an overly literal way. However, the point remains that in the eyes of the many people within the modern United States, the Ferguson shooting, and its aftermath, seemed to be a direct transposition of the power relations of the past into a present-day context.
This historical memory would seem to be the primary force that has granted the Ferguson shooting such an emblematic status within the nation and catalyzed such bitterness within the Ferguson community and beyond. The United States would clearly like to believe that racism is a thing of the past and that it has overcome the darkness that marred its beginnings as a nation. However, this self-image exists in constant tension with the structural racial disparities that obviously continue to exist within American society (even in an age when a black man can be the president); and when an event such as the Ferguson shooting occurs, it is as though the darkness of history irrupts into the present. This severely compromises the nation’s present-day image of itself. Surely, even modern-day black people in the United States would like to believe that racism is a thing of the past; and a good deal of the bitterness and rage that surrounds events like the Ferguson shooting may well be the result of blacks in particular and Americans, in general, having to witness concrete evidence of how long of a way the nation still has to go with respect to the problem of racism.
Understanding what happened in Ferguson
In summary, this expository essay has consisted of a discussion of the history and significance of the Ferguson shooting. In order to truly understand the meaning of the event, it is necessary to view it within the context of the problems that the United States has had with racism since its very beginnings as a nation. A great deal of progress has surely been made in this regard over time, including the abolition of slavery with the Civil War and the civil rights movement a century later. However, events like the Ferguson shooting reveal that racism is still very much a thing of the present. Without the historical context, the Ferguson shooting would seem like an isolated event, and the level of anger surrounding it would be inexplicable. As it stands, though, the event becomes emblematic of the ongoing problem of racism within the United States.
Alcindor, Yamiche. “Ferguson Struggles to Grasp Why the Protests Turned Violent.” USA Today 2 Dec. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/01/ferguson-struggles-to-understand-move-to-violence/70120308/.
Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Legal Information Institute, 1954. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/347/483.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 1963. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
Mercier, Gilbert. “Celebrating the Genocide of Native Americans.” CounterPunch. 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/26/celebrating-the-genocide-of-native-americans/.
Richardson, L. D., and M. Norris. “Access to Health and Health Care: How Race and Ethnicity Matter.” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 77 (2010): 166-177. Print.
Sanchez, Ray. “Why Ferguson Touched a Raw, National Nerve.” CNN 29 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/29/us/ferguson-national-protests/index.html.
United States. U.S. Constitution. Cornell University Law School, 1789. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/overview.