Ferguson Isn’t So Black And White

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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“There is no ‘racial divide’ on the Ferguson story,” says the headline of a Tommy Christopher post on something called the Daily Banter, “only stupid white people vs. everyone else.”

Nor are all black perspectives equally legitimate, according to a fascinating piece in The New Republic. Julia Ioffe quotes the rapper Nelly, who has started a college scholarship fund for local teens in honor of Michael Brown, making fun of Ferguson’s looters.

“We have African-Americans with law degrees, that are lawyers and judges, but they’re not looking out for the black boys in the prison pipeline, they’re not sharing their knowledge,” the head of a local organization that works with black youths subsequently complained to Ioffe. He then mentioned black-on-black crime: “No one treats African-Americans worse than we treat each other.”

Other black interview subjects criticized the way some teens dress or lamented what they saw as a lack of education. “It was a sentiment I heard again and again in Ferguson: Yes, the largely white police force acted egregiously. Yes, the system—in segregated St. Louis more than in most cities—is stacked against them,” Ioffe writes. “But there’s something rotten inside the black community, too.”

Ioffe describes this “self-criticism—or self-flagellation” as the “politics of respectability,” a sort of Stockholm syndrome among blacks in response to white racism. “By putting distance between themselves and less affluent blacks, or those wearing baggy pants,” she whitesplains, “there’s a hope that they won’t be treated like them.”

That might to some extent describe the father who thought it was too provocative for his 19-year-old son to drive to the movies with four black friends. But it also may reflect people who actually live in a community recognizing its problems. One can see and condemn institutional racism without denying black people moral agency.

Just as one can simultaneously deplore rioting and looting while also criticizing a militarized police department for treating an outraged black community as an alien population to be occupied and pacified rather than American citizens who are to be protected and served.

Here is the blunt truth: virtually nobody knows what happened between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown on that tragic day. Even after the investigation is over, we probably never will know all the facts.

Most people are reacting to what happened in Ferguson based on their own personal experiences, not the facts of this particular case. Blacks who have had bad experiences with law enforcement or a passing familiarity with the statistics on police shootings see Brown as an unarmed man killed because of his race. Whites who have only had positive experiences with the law or know “the extent to which violent crime touches African-American life,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, are more inclined to give the police the benefit of the doubt.

Countless law-abiding, “respectable” blacks have had negative interactions with the police, not many decades removed from even worse racial injustice in America. Many police officers in places like Ferguson have seen violence committed by young black men.  “[I]t’s just fake to pretend that the association of young black men with violence comes out of thin air,” observes John McWhorter, an African-American academic and New Republic writer. “Young black men murder 14 times more than young white men.”

It’s often assumed that only one of these two things can be true, that they are mutually exclusive. In fact, they are both true and mutually reinforcing. And since the overwhelming majority of people killed by young black men are other young black men, having police withdraw from the African-American community is not the answer.

None of that justifies treating innocent people as if they are guilty. But human beings are deeply flawed, no matter what color they are. We often make split-second decisions based on bias and fear rather than reason and the pursuit of justice.

Sometimes that’s true even after the heat of the moment has passed. In a country that was really committed to the due process rights guaranteed by the Constitution, people would wait for as much information as possible before defending a young man’s fatal shooting by an agent of the state or calling for a policeman’s prosecution.

Instead we sort ourselves into tribes and anoint ourselves judge, jury and executioner. Anyone who doesn’t sort properly is dismissed as a stupid white or self-loathing black. But not everything is black and white.

Even in Ferguson, there are shades of gray.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.