Since the death of Michael Brown, a lot has been said about what Ferguson reveals about racism in America. Some of the conversation has been incredibly insightful; some of it has been ignorant and counter-productive. I don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation about Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown. I feel that anything I am capable of saying has already been said more eloquently by someone else. Perhaps, though, I can speak to those who have not exposed themselves to the nuances of Ferguson or have not taken the time to read the long articles on race in America.
Racism is more than your personal feelings toward other races.
Many of us are accustomed to thinking of racism as personal prejudice by one race against another. While the bigot certainly exhibits racism, the issue is much larger. The problem is not racially prejudiced people in our society. The problem is that racism has been a cultural system in American. I can choose to love dark-skinned people and treat them fairly, but that does little to solve the incredibly complex systemic racism that is embedded in American culture.
Racism is perpetuated when black people are ghettoized and marginalized by unfair housing practices. Racism is empowered by the war on drugs which has disproportionately targeted racial minorities. Racism is seen when black Americans are more likely to go to prison than white Americans who commit the same crime. Racism becomes rooted when people of color make up over 60% of the American prison population. Racism grows when convicted felons are not allowed to vote in America. Racism is strengthened when hiring practices prohibit those who have spent time in jail from receiving jobs. Racism has been perpetuated by media portrayals of black people as unintelligent, angry, aggressive, hyper-sexual, and uneducated. Racism is ingrained when black neighborhoods have low-performing, underfunded schools, while white neighborhoods have good schools. Racism is embedded when black people are trapped in multi-generational cycles of poverty as a result of these issues above.
It has been decades since most of us have seen a sign that reads “whites only,” yet there are still systems in place that hold minorities back from true equality in America.
Justice is not punishment.
The term “Justice System” is used to identify the system for convicting and punishing people for crime: courts, prisons, executions. First Kings 10 gives an account of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. After she experienced his wisdom and the way he ruled Israel the Queen of Sheba proclaimed that God had made Solomon ruler to “maintain righteousness and justice.” This is not the justice of punishing criminals. Maintaining justice and righteousness means treating people with equity and removing evil systems that oppress. It means upholding goodness and returning the marginalized to right relationship with the community.
The cry for justice from Ferguson is not simply the desire to see a police officer pay for killing a young man. It is a cry to see an end to systems that have oppressed an entire population of people.
It’s not just about Michael Brown.
Thinking that the uproar in Ferguson (and across the country) is all about Michael Brown is a terrible mistake. The question has not been, “Will the police officer be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown?” The question has been, “Will our society stand with the oppressed or perpetuate the same old system that privileges some while marginalizing other?”
The protesters in Ferguson have not simply been protesting the killing of one young man, but the systemic racism that led to his death. The grand jury’s refusal to indict the Officer Wilson said to these protesters, and everyone who has been concerned about Ferguson, “We will not correct injustice.”
The show of force by Ferguson, St. Louis, and the state of Missouri has said to these protesters, “We will protect the privileged elements of our society at the expense of justice.”