“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?”
-Bob Dylan Lyrics, “Blowin in The Wind”
Michael Brown is dead. Why? He is now forever enshrined on the, seemingly, never ending and shameful list of young Black males killed—for no apparent reason other than their skin color. Why? Main Street, once again, bears witness to America’s ‘peculiar problem’ of race. Yet, this time the reaction by local Black population is both swift and angry. After so many decades of quiet resignation to their fate, docile appearing Black citizens of Ferguson erupt. Why? It bears repeating that their reaction was both swift and angry—not, initially, violent. However, the reaction by local law enforcement is an overreaction. The right to peacefully assemble is viewed, for some reason, as a threat. Why?
The Ferguson demonstrators know very well that their actions will not bring Michael Brown back to life. Their objective is two-fold; firstly, they want to know why an unarmed young man was gunned down in broad daylight; secondly, they want to firmly assert that these streets styled execution must cease. It is understandable why the Black citizens of Ferguson and throughout America are agitated and angry. The real question is why isn’t all of America outraged? Why do some Americans believe Michael did something to deserve being shot six times? Why do others feel more sympathy for the White policeman, Darren Wilson? Why, does a recent Pew Research Poll “show that whites and blacks—as well as Democrats and Republicans—have different views over the unrest in Ferguson.”
More specifically, the Pew Poll shows that in response to the question, “does the shooting of Michael Brown raise important issues about race that need to be discussed?” 80% of Blacks, 37% of Whites, 68% of Democrats, and 22% of Republicans agreed. If one does the math, it appears as though a clear majority of 67% of Whites feel that this horrible event does not suggest a need to talk about race relations in American. Equally disturbing is that 78% of Republicans see no need to engage in discussions about race relations.
While these percentages are revealing of what we suspected, one has to go underneath the numbers to understand how twisted and wicked a problem race relations has become in America. Too many Whites and Blacks have been conditioned over time by the culture of racism to be numbed by the snuffing out of young Black lives. A glaring example is the scourge of highly addictive drugs that afflicted, criminalized and decimated lives in the Black community for decades. Yet, until these drugs seeped into White communities, users were viewed as moral reprobates, criminals and junkies. Now, as these same drugs ravage parts of the White community, the paradigm has shifted and the users are now victims in need of hospitalization and treatment—not jail. Why?
I realize that nothing I write or say about this issue will change the minds of many people whose mental frames are fixed. Still, I believe it is useful to both point out and heighten the contradictions. For example, “after partying next door”, a group of White “young adults” from a gated community in Coral Gables, Florida, entered the locked home of NBA superstar, Ray Allen at 2:30 am to see “what it looked like.” Ray was out of town and his wife and children were home, alone. The security system was inoperable due to home construction. Several young adults with flashlights awakened Mrs. Allen who was sleeping with her four children when these intruders appeared in her bedroom. She screamed and the young adults immediately fled the premises. The Coral Gables Police Department chose not to bring charges, characterizing the forced entry as a “silly prank.” My question to you, the reader, is: Do you think the “young adults” were White or Black?
Needless to say, if these “young adults” had been Black, the police reaction would have been measurably different. Would the police have characterized the break-in as a “silly prank” and refused to arrest them and/or bring charges. God forbid, if this group of “young adults” had been Black males, imagine the outcome. Why does the color of our skin evoke such violent reactions—even within the boundaries of our own communities? Some pundits argue that the dress code of the hip-hop culture signals to the police that our young men are dangerous and up to no good. In other words, the way they are dressed, somehow, justifies the outsized and often lethal reaction to them. This “way they dress” argument is about as crazy and specious as saying that the way a woman is dressed justifies a brutal rape. Well, I am just not buying it—and neither are the victims and their families.
No, there is something much deeper going on. Simply put, the loss of Black life does not seem to cause the same visceral reaction as even the supposed threatened loss of a White life. The Ferguson Police Chief hesitated to give the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, ostensibly to protect him from alleged death threats. Yet, it was Officer Wilson who, for some reason, decided in a deadly instant to become jury, judge and executioner on the street in Ferguson. Who was Officer Wilson protecting? Who was protecting Michael Brown that fateful day? Enough is enough. No doubt being a beat cop is a tough and challenging job. However, being young, Black and male is even more risky and challenging. Ferguson Police Department is made up of 53 officers and an astounding 3 (6%) of those officers are Black. Today, Ferguson’s population is 67% Black and 29% White. Would more Black officers solve the problem? No. As one news commentator put it, “ while a more diverse police force would be beneficial, what we really need is better officers”—be they Black or White.
So, to partially answer question of “Why?” the eruption in Ferguson, let’s take a dispassionate look at this predominately Black suburb. The New York Times reports, “according to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit, Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees.” The Times goes on to report that Blacks are the ones being disproportionately stopped and cited for traffic violations. Specifically, according to the data, “In Ferguson last year, 86 percent of the stops, 92 percent of searches and 93 percent of arrests were of black drivers—despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent versus 34 percent of whites).” These statistics are evidence of what I refer to as the “race tax”—in other words, the ongoing penalty for being Black and mobile, whether walking or driving. Ferguson with almost 70 percent of its population being Black has a White Mayor, a City Council with one Black member and a school board with six whites and one Hispanic. Great Britain sent British citizens to their colonies in Africa and Asia to serve as territorial Governors and administrators to watch over the indigenous people of color. Who’s watching over Ferguson?
Ferguson, MO is an occupied zone, not unlike where much of Black America live. The police are more like military occupiers who live outside of the zone and commute to their duty stations. If you are Black, your driver’s license or some other form of ID is your “pass” to get in and out of this zone—reminiscent of the apartheid pass laws enforced in the old South Africa. In America, the ghetto White soldiers, in the uniform of police, roam, stop, frisk, humiliate and too often kill without the constitutional guarantee of due process.
These militarized zones are not easy to keep orderly. There are vicious local gangs functioning more like as community terrorists. The law-abiding, hard working, God-fearing Black citizens trapped in the zones find themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” Every day they must answer the question, who is most dangerous—the street gangs or the police? Both the gangs and police are heavily armed. Too often when either group fires guns, innocent bystanders are the collateral victims. In fact, it is a miracle that the fusillade of bullets fired by Officer Wilson did not hit an innocent bystander. In addition to living in an occupied zone, the Black population of Ferguson is also a “cash cow” for the municipality. So, on top of paying property and sales taxes, it appears as if Blacks must, also, pay a “race tax.”
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently echoed the wisdom of other great sages, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” It is time to jerk our collective heads out of the sand of denial and excuses. We, as Americans, need to wake up from the twilight zone of a so-called colorblind society. Race has been and remains the one issue that can take this great country down. Now is the time to initiate a national dialogue on our so-called race problem. We must borrow from the wisdom of the great Nelson Mandela and inaugurate an era of “Truth and Reconciliation.” After talking to each other we must act together with each other. To fulfill our divine destiny, we must, as a nation, finally answer Bob Dylan’s poignant question and say all ofour roads are safe for any man “to walk down.” Why not!