Racial injustice is alive and well in America—and our nation will never achieve racial peace without justice.
Monday night’s announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson on any charges in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown sparked a series of, at times, violent protests in Ferguson and sympathy demonstrations in Oakland, Calif.
And as protesters marched, President Barack Obama played good cop on national television, imploring the nation to remain peaceful, while St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCullough—who announced the grand jury decision—played bad cop, appearing to blame the media for tensions in Ferguson over the last several months.
This is a wake-up call for those who editorialized, after Obama’s 2008 presidential election, that we were entering a “post-racial” age. And all fair-minded people interested in social justice should be angry.
But this moment also provides a new generation of Americans—both would-be activists and not-so-innocent bystanders—with a searing national lesson about our nation’s racial politics.
First and foremost is that black lives, especially those of young black men, continue to hold less value in the eyes of the law and the nation.
Anticipation of the grand jury decision played out as racial theater in the streets while the whole world watched, and the massive law-enforcement presence echoed aspects of this past summer’s showdown between police and protesters, when Kevlar-wearing officers patrolled the streets in military-style vehicles more suitable for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Three months after Wilson shot and killed Brown in broad daylight, the entire nation waited in anticipation of the decision; residents organized a makeshift memorial at the site of Brown’s death; crowds of protesters, police and journalists formed an uneasy community of witnesses gathered in downtown Ferguson to respond to the decision.
And though previously seen police belligerence was held largely in check, police still released smoke bombs and engaged in sporadic skirmishes with protesters—with the National Guard’s visibility seemingly designed to protect, as Gov. Jay Nixon suggested, “life, property and freedom of speech” … in exactly that order.
No society, however, can promote law and order in the absence of justice.
Indeed, the roots of racial unrest in Ferguson, the wider St. Louis County and around the nation are found in deep structures of inequality that no amount of state repression and violence can ever quell.
Ferguson’s past summer of racial unrest, anger and upheaval revealed the stubborn persistence of institutional racism so pernicious as to have been normalized. Brown’s death rightfully became a flash point for simmering issues of race, class and the injustice of the American criminal-justice system.
The deeper issues at play here, ranging from residential segregation and catastrophic rates of unemployment to failing public schools and the systemic racial profiling of African Americans by law enforcement, plague the entire nation but haven’t received serious policy attention in more than a generation—putting America in the midst of a racial crisis that predates Michael Brown’s tragic death.
Ferguson’s legacy is in providing moral and political clarity, not just to the immediate circumstances surrounding Brown’s shooting but to the larger social and political context that made his death possible.
We can best honor his life, and death, by pursuing a measure of social justice that surpasses even the historic political and legal victories associated with the civil rights movement—that we celebrate, ironically, in our popular culture with movies like the forthcoming Selma. Even amid Supreme Court challenges to voting rights, mass incarceration, and renewed public school and residential segregation, our popular culture continues to celebrate the civil rights era through a Martin Luther King holiday, monument and forthcoming movie. Such commemorations ring hollow in the context of Ferguson as the nation congratulates itself for vanquishing past racial demons while ignoring the new Jim Crow that engulfs our present.
Ferguson also offers an important opportunity for all Americans. While activists are right to take their outrage to the streets, major public-policy changes and democratic participation are key to the social change this country desperately needs. These changes are both racially specific and universal, making Ferguson ground zero for all who are interested in a vision of social justice that transcends anything this country has ever achieved.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.