The streets of Ferguson, Missouri, have finally calmed after two weeks of often violent protests against the deadly shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer. Now is a good time to examine the claim made by a number of politicians and pundits that “root causes,” like poverty, poor education and racism, were the real culprits for Ferguson’s rioting.
Unlike many talking heads who sympathized with the rage of the protestors in Ferguson, I grew up in the inner city. I was outraged each day by the injustices I encountered, but I did not riot, loot, vandalize or commit arson. I went to troubled public schools and lived in poverty, but I ultimately prevailed. Perhaps those who gripe about social and racial injustice and pleaded for understanding for the mayhem in Ferguson should try to see the world from the perspective of law-abiding citizens who are the real victims when poor neighborhoods turn into zones of anarchy.
When I was ten, my family and I immigrated to inner-city Oakland, California, from post-Mao Communist China. We found ourselves in a city plagued by unchecked crime, abject poverty and rampant racism.
I remember the lawlessness well. In our city, drug dealing seemed more prevalent than employment; gunshots rang at night outside my windows; and muggings took place in plain sight.
Much like the protestors in Ferguson, I did not always think highly of law enforcement, but my anger was different from theirs. Mine was directed at the police’s absence. Like the shop owners in Ferguson whose property was been damaged or destroyed in the riots, I wanted to know where the cops were when crime occurred or what their value was when they could not find or punish the perpetrators.
This was the case when my family’s house was broken into and my parents’ hard-earned savings stolen. This was the case when teenage hooligans ran up to my father’s car at a stop sign and beat him through the open window, just for laughs. This was the case when my relatives were robbed at gunpoint; and this was the case when criminals and their activities made it unsafe for me to sit on my front porch or take a stroll in my neighborhood at night. Almost always, the perpetrators shared the same skin color as Michael Brown and many Ferguson protestors who have complained about police brutality and racial profiling.
Just as in Ferguson, riots broke out in my city in the name of social or racial justice. Each time, innocent citizens and small business owners, many of whom minorities themselves, were hurt the most. Each time, shopkeepers had to clean up the shattered windows, replace the damaged or looted merchandise and bear the financial cost of lost business. Each time, the law abiding paid the price for those who resorted to violence out of rage or pure opportunism.
I remember the racism too. Much like many of the protestors of Ferguson, I felt the rage deep in my core, and the rage grew with each new humiliation. In my city, my name became “Chinaman” and “Ching Chong.” Racial epithets were doled out in large quantities toward other “Chinamen” too — who included the Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asians. Teenagers crept up behind elderly Asian residents, like my grandparents, to frighten them by screaming the worst imitations of the Chinese language. Criminals conducted their version of racial profiling and targeted Asians for robbery because they believed we were more likely wear cultural jewelry and carry cash.
Yet unlike the protestors of Ferguson, I encountered racism from those who were considered by mainstream American society to be incapable of it and who, like numerous criminals, shared the same skin color as Michael Brown. For the despicable behavior from the racists in my city, there was no denunciation from national civil rights leaders, no outrage from politicians who arrived in office promising to heal racial wounds and no concern from journalists who prided themselves on their racial sensitivity.
I remember the poor education too. There were instructors who regularly left their classrooms unsupervised. There were teenagers who dropped out of school due to pregnancy, and others who could no longer continue because they were killed by gang violence. There were parents who saw their children’s schoolwork as not part of their responsibility, and students who refused to learn. But I studied, in those classes where teachers taught, and even in those classes where they did not. Unlike talking heads who blame only bad schools and bad neighborhoods for providing a bad education, I saw plenty of bad parents and bad students.
I remember the poverty too. Just like many who protested in Ferguson, I lived in it. All around me, I saw storefronts with shattered windows, bridges and tunnels splashed with graffiti, and downtown streets that smelled of urine. Upon my family’s arrival in the United States, we wore clothing purchased from Goodwill or handed down from our relatives. In the beginning, we used second-, third- or fourth-hand furniture, and my brother and I each slept on half of a bed: I slept on the mattress and he on the box springs.
But my family did not blame American society for holding us back or stacking the odds against the poor. We fought poverty the old-fashioned way — we worked. My parents worked at menial jobs, for long hours, at first earning less than minimum wage. My mother, who was once a schoolteacher in China, became a seamstress in a sweatshop in America. My father, who was once a respected senior mechanic trailed by apprentices, worked as a kitchen help on whom his employer heaped generous doses of gratuitous verbal abuse. My brother and I studied day and night instead of skipping school or hanging out “on the streets.” My family saved for home ownership rather than splurging on fancier clothing, better snacks or long vacations.
Five years after our arrival, my family achieved home ownership, albeit in a bad neighborhood. A few years after that, I made my way to an Ivy League university. Less than ten years after my graduation, my entire family left the ghetto.
We did not commit strong-arm robbery at the local convenience store. We did not set fire to our neighborhood businesses. We did not loot national establishments such as Walmart, Target or Toys R Us. We did not hurl Molotov cocktails at the police. Not everyone who is outraged takes to criminality and blames American society.
Community leaders and activists in Ferguson have argued that the violence and looting they witnessed had been instigated by elements outside of their city. Yet it is no surprise that their calls peace were ignored repeatedly during the two weeks of protests: Can one call for responsible, nonviolent protest behavior while saying nothing about common criminal behavior such as robbery or drug use? Once the line for the absence of personal responsibility has been drawn, is it so hard to cross over from blaming “root causes” and history to blaming society for one’s participation in looting, vandalism and violence?
In my path out of the ghetto, personal responsibility meant, at a minimum, not participating in inflicting madness and mayhem on my own community, but it also meant not harboring hatred against an entire race even if some of its individuals had done grave wrong. And it meant not subscribing to the belief that somehow it is someone else’s responsibility to extract me from the dysfunction of the inner city. Perhaps national civil rights leaders and local community leaders should spend more time conveying this message.
Is it possible that the police officer who shot Michael Brown was racist and committed unjustified homicide? Yes, but even if that were the case, America cannot go on justifying bad behavior, not even when it comes from a people who have been wronged by history.