Echoes of the Past in Ferguson

The past is present in Ferguson, Missouri.

Posted Nov 28, 2014

“History is about remembering the past, but it is also about what we choose to forget.”                                                                                                                              - Margaret MacMillan

The past is present in Ferguson, Missouri.  But whereas it echoes with booming resonance for the African American community, the past vibrates at a frequency to which many Whites are deaf.

For obvious reasons, White people in America like to focus on the progress that has occurred in race relations, and when we remember the past at all, it is in highlight reel (not real) form.  Slave owners bad, Lincoln good.  Segregation immoral, MLK non-violent hero.

From the perspective of progress, Michael Brown’s shooting and the subsequent failure to hold anyone accountable seems like a setback.  Michael’s death is a tragedy and the grand jury decision not to bring the case against Officer Darren Wilson to a proper trial is perhaps a shame.  But the evidence just wasn’t strong enough, and that’s all there is to it.  An injustice, yes; but hardly warranting all this anguish, all this rage. Surely?

But this is not just a specific tragedy or a single instance of possible injustice.  Neither is it a new type of injustice in a long history of injustices.  To those who remember the past, it can seem to be exactly the same injustice as there always was and always has been – the destruction and desecration of a Black body, and a gaping hole where equal protection under the law is supposed to be.

It is 2014 and we have a twice-elected Black President, and yet in many ways we could be back, to pick a non-arbitrary date, in 1944.

In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal published the second volume of his voluminous survey of US race relations, An American Dilemma (subtitled, The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy).  A Swedish economist and sociologist, Myrdal was invited by the Carnegie Corporation to study racial discrimination and disparity.  They specifically wanted his perspective as an outsider, and as WWII raged in Europe, he travelled extensively throughout the United States and particularly the South, observing, interviewing and writing.

In an effort to remember the past and by hearing its echoes to better understand the present, I have returned to Myrdal in the past few days.  His observations generally need little interpretation, and their parallels in the present are strikingly, startlingly obvious. 

On Grand Juries and Failures to Indict

“When the offender is a white man and the victim a Negro, a grand jury will often refuse to indict… “

“It is notorious that practically never have white lynching mobs been brought to court in the South, even when the killers are known to all the community and are mentioned by name in the local press.  [But] when the offender is a Negro, indictment is easily obtained and no such difficulty at the start will meet the prosecution of the case.”

On Witness Testimony

“Greater reliance is ordinarily given a white man’s testimony than a Negro’s.  This follows an old tradition in the South, from slavery times, when a Negro’s testimony against a white man was disregarded; and the white judge may justify his partisanship by what he feels to be his experience that Negroes are often actually unreliable.”

On Policing and Police Testimony

“…the police often assume the duty not only of arresting, but also of sentencing and punishing the culprit.”

“The Negro’s most important public contact is with the policeman. He is the personification of white authority in the Negro community.

‘There he is “the law” with badge and revolver; his word is final; he is the state’s witness in court, and as defined by the police system and the white community, his word must be accepted.’ (citing Raper, 1940)”

On Police Shootings

“The majority of police killings of Negroes must be deemed unnecessary when measured by a decent standard of policemanship.  The victim is often totally innocent.  But the white policeman in the Negro community is in danger, as the high casualty figures show, and he feels himself in danger.  ‘In the mind of the quick-trigger policeman is the fear of the ‘bad n*gger.’’ (citing Raper, 1940)”

On Public Officials, including Prosecutors

“The American tradition of electing, rather than appointing, minor public officials has its most serious features in regard to the judiciary branch of the government…”

“…the fact that administration of justice is dependent on the local voters is likely to imply discrimination against an unpopular minority group, particularly when this group is as disfranchised as Negroes in the South.  The elected judge [or other officer of the law] knows that sooner or later he must come back to the polls, and that a decision running counter to local opinion may cost him his position.  He may be conscious of it or not, but this control of his future career must tend to increase his difficulties in keeping aloof from local prejudices and emotions.”

The relevance of these quotations to current events needs little elaboration.  I will comment here only on the last observation.  Myrdal noted that elected officials – including public prosecutors – might have competing loyalties: to the law they are sworn to uphold, but also to the voters that elected them.  With regard to the questionable decisions of St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McColloch in this case, therefore, one sincerely hopes it is not relevant that 70.3% of the voters in this county are White and that an estimated 71% of those White county residents thought (pre-Grand Jury decision) that the officer involved should not be charged.

It is impossible to read these observations from the early 1940s – before Brown vs. Board of Education, before Selma, before the March on Washington, before the Civil Rights Acts, before President Obama - without hearing the past reverberating in the present. To understand why the Black community is so upset by Michael Brown’s death and this grand jury decision, we must understand how similar these events seem to the terrible rhythms of the past, and how those rhythms have never subsided.  What feels like the same injustice triggers the same anguish, the same fear, the same frustration and anger. For real (not reel) racial progress to be made, it is time for us – and for White people in particular – to choose to stop forgetting.