Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year. The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country. To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular. As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges. As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.
Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result. Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own. Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates. For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual. Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story. That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.
A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.
Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color. The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem. In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful. The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death. Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.
Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack. These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it. I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions. He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:
Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.
I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”
The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis. While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future. In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today. Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death. Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:
I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.
Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.
Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence. The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors. So in 2012, NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law. Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve. Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.
I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done. Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:
It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege. So when someone tells you to “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.
It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons. As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender. More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice. I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.
I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint. It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work. I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town. As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump. Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.” His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.
Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient. His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling. His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic. I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation. But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything. There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me. I have been denied no professional or social advantages. There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.
I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment. I am a professor of education. I am tenured. I am a program director at my university. In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach. If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher. Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.
Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school. I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool. I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school. I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.
None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”. Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country. Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged. Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.
If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.