What happened in Ferguson is not a surprise. It was predictable and some would argue inevitable.
But these events are not just about what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. They are not just about being Black or White. And they are not due to something innate in our human nature.
Ferguson is our fault, and our responsibility. And by “our” I mean those of us in the USA.
What happened in Ferguson is a result of pervasive ignorance of what race is, and is not, and the increasingly separate and unequal lives that create a persistent culture of fear, apathy, and sometimes rage.
If people believe that Race is biology, that it is natural, they see differences, conflicts, and relationships between us as patterned by our nature. When we assume something is natural, we don’t try very hard to change it. And that is part of where the problem lies.
We know that Race is a real thing and that aspects of one’s life and experience are different based on whether one is Black, or White, or Latino and Asian or Native American. We also know that these differences are not because the race categories themselves are actual biological groupings—they aren’t. Races are social and historical creations—they are real for our society but they are neither static nor inevitable nor biological.
Race is a dynamic social category that has changed over time in the USA. For example, in the late 1800s, many groups currently placed in the category “White” (like the Irish or Italian) were not in that category the way they are today. Racial categories, and who comprises them, are the result of specific historical patterns, actions, and events, not biology. These assertions about race are robustly supported by current scientific, historical and psychological research: see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for just a sample of the better data and discussions on this topic.
However, while race is not a natural (organic/biologically based) division of humans, it does entail social, biological, economic and political repercussions. The current way race plays out (Black or White or Latino or Asian or Native American) and the historical, social, political and economic structures associated with these divisions shape the way we see, interact and feel about one another. For example, the 2010 census shows high rates of segregation by race in the USA and notes that “residential segregation was still higher for African Americans than for the other groups across all measures.” And separation is not just via space. We also know that that the net household worth for Whites is 20 times higher than for Blacks and Latinos, that the infant mortality rate is twice as high for Blacks as for Whites, and that Blacks are incarcerated at 6x the level for Whites and Latinos at 3x the level of Whites. These inequalities do not stem from differences in biology or nature, but they are very real and hail from a deep history.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the US Constitution as unalienable rights, and we hold them to be at the heart of what the USA stands for as a nation. However, at the time these words were written they did not apply to anyone of African or Native American descent, nor for all practical purposes to any women, regardless of race. From the very beginnings of the USA structured racial inequality has been an integral part of the social fabric. Over the last 238 years much has changed, but racial structuring of society and the inequalities associated with it have not gone away.
The reality is that there are patterns of differences between racial groups; that many Americans are ignorant of what creates and shapes those differences; and that many of us live in separate communities with different economies, opportunities, choices and landscapes—we seldom have a sense of what life is like outside of our own community, and race.
The one bright spot is that if race is neither biologically produced nor a fixed part of our nature, then the inequalities associated with it are due to our histories, economies, and behaviors. Thus, they are changeable. If this is the case, the subsequent problems and conflicts that emerge from those inequalities are potentially avoidable. Future Fergusons are not necessarily inevitable; we can shape our present and future.
The assumption of a naturalness to racial inequality and the lack of familiarity of how diverse people experience daily lives in the USA, enables our society—via ignorance and fear—to avoid its responsibilities.
As a society it’s on our shoulders that twice as many Black infants die as White infants, that income disparities and inequality are increasing (and not just by race), that most of us live in racially and economically segregated communities and that nearly two thirds of our prison population is made up of groups who make up less than one-third of the general population. Fear, ignorance and a deep history of racial discrimination drive much of our daily interactions in the USA and they most certainly set the stage for the events that transpired between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown and their aftermath. Until we challenge the cycle of race(ism), fear, and ignorance they are not going away.
The events at Ferguson were not about human nature, but the response can be. Humans as a species cooperate and collaborate better than anything else out there. Knowledge can replace ignorance, hope can replace fear and community can replace separation—but only if we try harder. Understanding what race is and is not, knowing our history and recognizing the profound effects of inequality and segregation provides a starting point. The rest is up to us.