Demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri during the National March on Ferguson Aug. 30, 2014.
Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

In the smoking wake of Ferguson’s fires, everybody wants a hearing. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), seeing a political opening, has already scheduled a September panel on the militarization of local police. Congressional Black Caucus members, mostly powerless on the House side, want their day of hearings, too. But wondering whether or not the Republican majority will let them have that is a guess as good as the breath wasted on it. Marches, town halls and classroom discussions about Ferguson, Mo., are now frequent fixtures in American discourse as folks gingerly navigate the contours of the great race debate. 

Ferguson, however, has become a convenient stand-in for the real debate over racism and exactly what that is. We may have thought we walked away from the Twittered images of unrest in Ferguson with, at least, some verification that racism exists, but there’s really no working definition of the term going forward.

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And we could seriously use that working definition before the conversation suddenly shifts away from the racist environment that triggered Ferguson and continues to infect many communities like it. Hearings on police militarization, after all, shed light only on one element of the problem; bet your bottom dollar that McCaskill and her Senate colleagues won’t talk about the racialized mindset of police shooting unarmed black men and the racist institutions or systems they work for.

We’ve yet to get into what Emory University professor Carol Anderson eloquently outed as the “white rage” that “has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.” And we’ve yet to reckon with the warning presciently issued by Attorney General Eric Holder to Morgan State University graduates a few months ago, against focusing solely “on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter” at the risk of missing “the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.”

Even black members of Congress might find themselves treading carefully on the deeper racism conversation. Of course they’ll say there’s a pattern of black men being blasted by white cops. But getting deep into analysis of the root cause and having a broader discussion about the core problem of racism in America becomes a dangerous, impolitic proposition for them. 

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It’s because society has managed to mangle and deliberately obfuscate terms like “racist” and “racism” to the point where they’re frequently misused and often ridiculed. Simply saying something that’s—ahem—off-color is greeted with “Oh, that’s so racist!” And that’s how a functional definition of racism gets mangled into something trivial and unimportant. We’ve become duped into caring more about what individual people say than what organized groups, institutions and systems are doing.

So, for example, we get lit up when a foulmouthed NBA owner gets caught in a rant about his mistress hanging out with black men, but we don’t care that the NBA itself has, maybe, one black partial owner in an overall neo-plantation business setup that’s rarely even mentioned because the players are well-paid. When predominantly white-owned Silicon Valley employers get away with having a workforce that’s only 2 percent African American, no one’s “racist” because no one got caught on tape saying anything, right? And we get incensed that a white cop shot a black teen and call that racist, but there’s no loud condemnation of the structural arrangement supporting that behavior as the true racism.

Pew pollsters, for example, will ask about black-white differences of opinion over whether black Americans and white Americans are treated equally by police. They’ve also mapped out “racial divisions” in the reaction to Ferguson. Still, we’ve about diluted our collective sense of what racism is and how it’s perpetually used to victimize entire groups of people in pernicious ways. Pollsters might ask how we feel about racial equality, but they don’t go on to ask if we believe that social, political and economic institutions have stacked a mountainful of racist odds against us.

And getting bent over images of cops brutally choking, beating and blasting people that look like you doesn’t necessarily address the issue, either. Not if it doesn’t help us identify the name and location of the racist infrastructure designed to encourage the behavior in the first place. Once we reach that point, we’ll end up realizing that the cops are underpaid pawns in this game, too.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.