The Ferguson Riots and the State of Racism in America

I’m not going to talk about the specifics. It’s been in the news enough for you guys to know what is is. Black teenagers are getting shot by the cops, riots are happening, we all know by now. It’s a terrible situation.

Police brutality is a problem. Personally, I think it’s a problem that applies far more to economically destitute people more than any specific racial groups in general–and there are more middle class black people than poor ones, despite what many people think, so it’s not like “poor” and “black” are commensurate. You see the police abuse their power over those who don’t have the social influence or finances to protect themselves from that treatment. You see police abuse peaceful protesters. And it seems like a fairly common issue. Police overreach probably hasn’t gotten any worse over the years, but in a world of smartphones it’s definitely more well documented, and it’s an issue that should be addressed. The sooner the better, because it’s sad that I can hear a story about a police officer strangling an unarmed civilian to death and just shrug because it’s something that happens all the time. 

In America there’s a tendency to idolize police officers as heroes, and that’s a mentality that I’m very against. No doubt some police officers are heroic, good people, but that doesn’t change the fact that some police officers are just high school bullies all grown up who took a job that let them further indulge in a power fantasy. You can’t idolize someone just because they have a certain profession and ignore their actual actions. We live in a culture that protects cops from legal punishment and social scorn for their actions because “They’re heroes–you can’t say anything bad about a hero, you can’t throw them in prison for doing something wrong. They help people, they protect you.” It’s the kind of mentality that shrugs off the excessive force police seem prone to using, the kind of mentality that enables this kind of police-state behavior where getting a cop mad is a crime in of itself and where a cop can abuse whoever they want as long as they’re wearing their uniform at the time.

Personally, I’m not a fan of cops. I’ve never had a bad experience with one, but the police often seem like an overly aggressive and reactive extension of our already incredibly flawed legal system. I’m not saying “Fuck da po-lice.” I’m not saying that we don’t need them. And, like I already said, I’m sure individual police officers are fine, upstanding people who genuinely deserve to be respected. But being a cop shouldn’t grant you respect by default. An argument you always hear is, “Well, when you’re in trouble and you need help, you’re gonna call the police, so you can’t say anything bad about them.” But the hollowness of that argument is obvious. Something being a necessary element of a civilized society in theory does not mean that whatever it does is acceptable in application. Large societies need a government to keep things under control–can we not have complaints about the government now? 

All of that being said, with my skepticism of police action out in the open for everyone to see, what is happening in Ferguson right not is not okay.

I’m black. I’m black and I spend a good deal of time in Philadelphia, one of the most notoriously corrupt and violent cities in the country. I’ve never had problems with the police, personally–not in Philly and not in the South where I grew up. That doesn’t mean that other black people haven’t, but the rhetoric you’re hearing now makes it seem like black-targeted police bias is something that every single black person is faced with all the time, and my mere existence points against that. Yes, I’m a girl and I dress like a hipster and have glasses and talk “proper,” but according to the rhetoric, none of that matters. I should be a target anyway just because I’m black. I don’t want to say the police as one huge, generalized institution are racist–individual cops may be, but, if anything, it seems like the generalized “police” take advantage of the fact that the other people around them are prejudiced in some way, most of it seemingly centered on the drug war, because fighting against drug use is their excuse for everything. Use a needless amount of force with that homeless guy sleeping on a park bench, no one cares how you treat them. That teenager had pot on him? Well, clearly he’s a druggie breaking the law, I bet he smokes crack too–send him to jail! 

So this is coming from a black person who has indeed experienced instances of racism (including one extreme case of it), who acknowledges that racism is a thing that the legal system oft engages in, who admittedly doesn’t like the police, and who firmly believes that action should be taken to prevent police brutality against all people.

Rioting is not the same as protesting. And rioting is not okay. It. Is. Not. Okay.

It’s not okay now. It wouldn’t be okay in the 1960’s. It wouldn’t even be okay back in the olden days with slaves revolting and killing all the whites on the plantation. And if people acknowledged that, I’d be fine with it. If the general consensus was that rioting was bad and that people shouldn’t be doing it, I would only be complaining about the police and then leave it at that. But there are people–mostly on the left side of the political spectrum along with me–who are trying to justify this. Legitimately justify it, as if it’s a legitimate form of protest. And their reasons for why the Ferguson riots are a “good thing” make them seem just as goddamn racist as the cops they’re decrying. And no one seems to notice that. I feel the need to point out that I’m not one of those mythical black conservatives that Fox News loves bringing on to prove that they’re totes not racist yo. Just throwing that out there.

Intentionally provoking the already volatile riot cops and peaceful protesting are totes the same thing, though. Something tells me that if many of these people decided to protest ‘Nam, they’d bypass sticking flowers in riot cops’ gun barrels and just skip to the part where they mindlessly yelled accusations of racism and damaged property and other people.

All you hear is that the historical context of racism has led to these poor, poor people having all this built up racial frustration that just exploded in a tidal wave of race-based anger after a kid got shot. But I’m saying this honestly. From the very bottom of my African American, tree-hugging, pacifistic, humanist heart: Black people, stop using racism as the excuse for all of your problems. It’s not a justification. It’s hardly even an explanation when you compare African Americans to any other downtrodden group of people that’s doing fine despite being screwed over in the past and still having some issues now.

Liberals so often give black people a get-out-of-jail-free card because slavery was a thing that happened and it was bad. We don’t treat any other group of people like this. Antisemitism was rampant in the past and still very present even now; the fucking Holocaust happened relatively recently in comparison to slavery. Asian Americans were worked to death building railroads, and were forced from their homes and put into camps because we were terrified of Communists and continually spat upon after they were let out because we were still afraid of Communists. Hell, Irish people were regarded as little more than niggers will paler skin and abused just as much. But for some reason, while no one expects Jews and Asians and redheads to just role over and give up and let the tragedy of their ethnic groups’ abused history overwhelm them, apparently it’s expected for blacks to do that. Because slavery was bad, and we’re still apologizing for it.

This is not protesting. This is a violent letting off of steam that does nothing but prove the points of bigots. Do you think the college kids who sat at diner counters and did nothing as people poured hot coffee on them and physically abused them with no repercussions for assaulting someone would approve of rioting? Do you think the people who did sit-ins and participated in marches and had to quit their jobs because they refused to ride the bus anymore would approve of this form of “protest”? This would make the civil rights leaders ashamed. I saw an article recently comparing images from Ferguson to images from the Civil Rights Era. No. Just no. It’s a shoddy imitation at best. Civil rights leaders would be sad to see the race they fought for devolve into that kind of behavior, and they’d be sad that people were actually defending them. They’d be sad that the current rhetoric in general blames the problems present in many, if not most, black communities on nothing but white racism. White racism and nothing else.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: There were black communities in the 1920’s–a time where black people still had a very real fear of being lynched in the street and denied basic necessities and human decency–that didn’t have those issues. They had no more crime than any other neighborhood in your typical city. People were educated–black schools with black teachers straight out of the colleges that they fought tooth and nail to get into and excelled in to prove that they belonged there, offered a fairly good, even high-standard, education, and black parents expected their kids to do well. They separated themselves from the whites who rejected and abused them and they tried their damnedest to put their best foot forward in every business and cultural endeavor to prove that they could be just as good as whites by actually doing it. It was a sad fact of the time that many blacks felt the need to prove their worth relative to the rest of society and valued hard-work as a community for that reason (they had more to prove and had to work twice as hard), and I’m definitely not encouraging that mentality now. I’m just pointing out that black communities in the 1920’s–a time of overt, hindering, dangerous, often lethal racism–could exist without egregious amounts of crime, without rampant unemployment even in a time where blacks weren’t hired by many places, without significant numbers of broken homes, without undereducated masses. In that historical context that we liberals love, it doesn’t make sense to say that racism is the source of all of black America’s current issues in the 21st century. It’s defeatist. It’s pessimistic. It tells black people not to try their best, but that all of the bad things in their life can be blamed on racism. Admitting that cops often abuse blacks has no bearing on the fact that black culture has its own set of problems and unfortunate norms. But to point that out is racist, because you just don’t know what it’s like.

If anyone justifies these riots, they are being exponentially hypocritical. They’re essentially saying that one group of people should be held accountable for their actions while another should not. The racist police should be held accountable and get in trouble. The black people rioting in the streets? Not so much. It’s a strangely racist way of looking at things for the people lamenting the existence of racism–not KKK style racist, but armchair anthropologist style racism–you know, how can we expect civility from them when theses savages just don’t know any better? They just don’t know. You can’t expect anything different from them. This is just how they do things. This is how they express themselves–they don’t know how to do it in any other way. You shouldn’t expect them to react to things with intelligence or get a hold of their emotions enough to not go out looting and rioting in the streets. This is how you can expect them to act.

They’re not educated enough. Since when did being blue-collar justify criminal behavior? It’s not like not having a college degree makes someone incapable of civil human interaction. It’s years of built up frustration over the abuse they’ve suffered finally boiling over. These people are just reacting to the racism that they have to deal with every day. Okay. Why then, don’t we hold them to the same standards as everyone else? We generally don’t find violent and destructive retaliation appropriate in any other situation. If a company egregiously abuses its employees and doesn’t pay them enough and breaks labor laws, the guy who walks into the office with a sawed-off shotgun and starts shooting people isn’t deemed as someone “just reacting to the abuse that he’s suffered.” But here it’s okay, because racism is bad? Go out and be as brutish and violent as you want! It’s racism’s fault, not yours! You’re just reacting the only way you can.

It’s not like people decide to engage in violent behavior. Nope, anything bad you do, random black guy, can be blamed on white people being racist to you. You don’t study for the SAT’s and get a shitty score? Well, it’s because our schools don’t cater enough to black people, not your lack of academic initiative. You decided to join a gang instead of going to community college? It’s because white people don’t give you enough role models. You behave like a criminal? Well, it’s because racism made it so that you couldn’t possibly turn out any other way.

Yay, not having to be held accountable for our actions because of vague forces constantly acting against us that are somehow more powerful and overwhelming in 2014 than they were in 1922! 

I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, and I’m not saying that it has absolutely zero affect on black communities. But people are acting like that’s all there is to it. People are acting like behaviorists and insisting that personal autonomy is just non-existent, that black people don’t act they are acted upon by malignant forces outside of their control, and that’s it. Racism exists. It definitely exist when it comes to how cops go about things. But this is not how you deal with it. Any change borne of negativity and violence is short lived. It’s a snake eating its own tail: you think it’s helping, but it’s just making it worse in the long run.

It’s like feminism in a lot of ways. Instead of focusing on progress despite the challenges you may face, race activism nowadays focuses on treating the challenges like they are constant and insurmountable and helpfully informing white people about how much they still suck. It’s not our job to do anything, it’s white people’s job to understand that they have to do something. Open indignation at the cost of actual action.

I remember going to a sociology lecture about white racism that was actually fairly interesting, even though I thought the study was a bit too minimalistic. It was about white doctors and black patients and about how the black patients didn’t feel as comfortable with their white doctor (which, of course, means that the white doctor was behaving in subtly racist ways, no other explanation necessary) and therefore didn’t take the medication prescribed to them. We were obviously supposed to feel bad for the poor black people who were in worse health because of that damn racism. But all I could think was that those black people had a doctor who met with them and prescribed them medicine that they chose not to take. It’s not like they were denied medical care, and it’s not like the doctor’s were prescribing them sub par meds that didn’t work as well. They just chose not to listen to their doctor because they thought the doctor was a mean person. If not having the best bedside manner was a legitimate invalidation of medical advice, all of Dr. House’s patients would have been better off going to another hospital. But the rhetoric of race activists and sociologists you hear now would have you believe that the black people in the study did absolutely nothing wrong and that it’s all racism’s fault. What? How is that helping anything? If the racism was so subtle that white people don’t know they’re doing it and black people can’t explain anything about it other than they felt it, it seems kind of useless.

The way people talk about race in this country is just full of overcompensation and extremism. You’re either a liberal who thinks that black people can do no wrong whatsoever and any negative elements of their culture and life can be blamed solely on the fact that slavery existed. Or you’re a conservative who says that racism doesn’t exist in America anymore because we have a black president and really just comes across as someone who refers to black people as “niggers” when you’re around your other conservative friends. For some reason, this is the issue where there is no middle ground. It’s like people are wholly incapable of both acknowledging that racism exists and that the more extreme examples of it should be contended with, but also that black people are human beings with flaws and with some amount of personal autonomy that dictates their actions and that not everything is a white guy’s fault somehow.

Before someone tells me that I just don’t get it, why don’t I tell you guys about the racism I remember experiencing? That should be fun. I’ve been called a “nigger” twice, I believe. My uncle–who is white–was called a “nigger lover” once for being outside with me and my brothers. My family had to move out of the house that I spent most of my childhood living in because someone in our neighborhood full of old white, Southern people and their obnoxious grandkids killed our dogs a few months after shooting one of them. I had a friend in high school who made the occasionally racially insensitive comment, but I don’t see that as that big a deal. I’ve been trailed in stores a few times, though it’s not a constant thing. I’m pretty sure my now ex-boyfriend’s dad made him break up with me because boo interracial relationships (we got back together anyway, which led to him getting kicked out of his house). I think my white aunt was under the impression that I should be dating black guys. My grandmother, who is also white, likes to think that I should do and like certain things and hang out with certain people just because I’m black.

I also didn’t have any black friends in middle and high school because I “talked like a white girl” and got good grades, which meant I was trying to be white. Actually, me and the other handful of academically minded black kids notably had no other black friends, probably for that same reason. Despite those isolated incidents of white people being racist toward me–and they were indeed isolated incidents, they in no way shape my entire life and categorize my experience each and every day that I go outside, my life was not and is not the barrage of racism that all blacks apparently experience daily–I was usually made far more self conscious about my race around other black people who generally gave me the impression that I was being judged for not being “black enough” (whatever the hell that means). Racism is a two way street, and black people are not the faultless bystanders out on the sidewalk. If their dickishness can be waved away by saying “well, that’s just what the culture they grew up in taught them,” than that should be an apt excuse for a white person being racist too. But it’s not, for either of them.

There are a couple of kids in Georgia who developed an app to document police brutality. Go out and support that! It’s the one thing to come of any of this that’s actually in any way helpful and constructive. Good on them.  


2 thoughts on “The Ferguson Riots and the State of Racism in America

  1. That was well said and full of wisdom.

    In the poor white parts of town, in the trailer parks and the rural areas, we never call the cops. We’re more afraid of the cops than we are of each other. Cops show up, amp up the violence, arrest the witness and shoot the dog. That’s a bit of gallows humor, but it’s happened just enough for us to be extremely hesitant about calling them up for any kind of help, In fact, if you’re mad at somebody, one of the worst things you can do to them, is to innocently call the cops and suggest a welfare check. I think it was the show Breaking Bad that started the tee-shirts that say, “we don’t EVER call the cops.”

    I point this out to validate what you’re saying about the economically disadvantaged and our relationship with cops. It’s not so much a racial thing as it is an economic thing, a thing about pecking orders, dominance, and aggression. Cops are not “our people” and “serve and protect” has never applied to any of us.

    Ferguson is such a tragedy on so many levels, but what really appalls me is how people are being played, racial buttons being pushed, the militarization of the police, politics coming into play, the media circling around like sharks.

    • It is a tragedy, and I feel like talking about the “race war” like it’s a.) an actual thing and b.) something that needs to be talked about above all else is completely missing the point that Ferguson was caused by police violence and overstepping of authoritative boundaries, something definitely not a “black” issue. In my home town, police would use “drug busts” as an excuse to illegally enter people’s homes late at night and find something to arrest them for (very rarely for the “drugs” that they apparently got called about) just to meet their quota, and my town was mostly white.

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