I KNOW I’M SUPPOSED to join the media chorus insisting that the preventable and needless death of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson is some kind of game-changer, a national wake-up call.
It’s not. Sorry.
We’ve had dozens of these “wake-up calls” before. We had one just like it in Savannah only a few months ago, the officer-involved shooting of Charles Smith.
As the news channels counted down to what they marketed as inevitable violence in Ferguson—as if the riots were scripted and residents had no free will—I was overcome not so much with outrage, but a sad, tired sense of déjà vu.
I was born the same year the Voting Rights Act was passed, supposedly doing away with the last vestiges of the Jim Crow South. In my lifetime I’ve seen more of these high-profile racially polarized court cases than I can count.
Rodney King. Tawana Brawley. O.J. Simpson. Trayvon Martin. Susan Smith. Etc, etc.
(Update: And now Eric Garner.)
The outrage over Brown’s shooting is real. But these cases over the years are all mind-numbingly similar.
They follow the same dog-eared script, settling nothing and doing nothing but perpetuating the racial strife that has been the dominant issue of American life for literally as long as I can remember.
Meanwhile, it looks like the rich keep getting richer and the powerful more powerful. That never seems to change either.
You always have to ask: Who benefits?
Who benefited when the prosecutor made it clear he essentially instructed the grand jury not to indict Wilson?
Who benefited from the decision to make the grand jury announcement at night?
Will Ferguson signal a move towards more effective policing, or a more effective police state? Two entirely different things.
Always ask, who benefits?
We know Michael Brown and his family clearly didn’t benefit from what happened in Ferguson. But here’s a question for you: How did things work out for Wilson?
I’m not suggesting you need to feel sorry for Wilson. But don’t make the mistake of thinking his life as a working class white man or his job as a police officer is somehow improved or made easier by the corrupt system he represents.
And hey, how’s the rioting working out?
When I was a toddler, inner cities in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, D.C., and elsewhere were burned to the ground during various riots throughout the 1960s.
Nearly a half-century later, most of those riot-torn neighborhoods remain blighted and hopeless.
What do you think Ferguson will look like 40 years from now? Any bets?
Our educational system seems engineered to promote conflict over cooperation as well.
In autumn 1971, Savannah and the rest of the country saw the beginning of mandatory busing to desegregate schools. Whether or not it was the right thing to do, busing led to more violence across America and the real onset of white flight.
It’s no accident that most white people who graduated high school during that time went on to become diehard Reagan Republicans.
As a father I’ve put two daughters through Savannah/Chatham County Public Schools. It’s been quite an education, in more ways than one.
In the late 1980s came more school engineering: The “magnet” system, installed in Savannah specifically to reverse white flight.
(If you’re new around here, that’s not just my interpretation or opinion, by the way. Boosting white attendance was the court’s specific legal reasoning for the magnets, now euphemistically called “academies.”)
In 2014, ten years after the feds finally ruled that Savannah schools were no longer segregated, debates over high-dollar bus contracts remain front and center in the school system—though Savannah’s poverty and illiteracy levels are virtually unchanged from the year I was born.
Why is change so slow to make its way down the line, seemingly no matter who is in charge? Who does that help?
Savannah has a City Manager form of government because the good ol’ boy white segregationist power structure in the 1950s was so fantastically corrupt that the state of Georgia had to step in and strip power from the Mayor’s office.
Thank goodness the old power structure is gone. But how’s the new power structure working out? Who is better off now?
Two things about power: It always corrupts, and it’s an equal opportunity corrupter.
Fast forward to 2011, when Mayor Otis Johnson controversially said, “It’s our turn now,” widely construed, at least in the white community, as a call for racial payback.
Savannah soon celebrated the appointment of its first African American City Manager, Rochelle Small-Toney. She left in disgrace a short time later.
Savannah then celebrated the appointment of its first African American Police Chief, Willie Lovett. He also left in disgrace a short time later.
So we see that it sure seems like the old Savannah way, of racially polarized voting, doesn’t really work out very well regardless of who ends up in charge.
Maybe there’s a better way?
At the national level, our first African American president reaches the end of his two terms, a breakthrough almost unimaginable in the 1960s. But who benefits?
During President Obama’s tenure, wealth disparity has reached levels of inequality never seen in American history—not even before the Great Depression.
Corporate profits and the stock market have never been higher. Wall Street has never been more powerful.
Under Obama, the reach of the American police/surveillance state has expanded to levels of intrusive power that even the Bush administration might consider excessive.
Yet in much of white America, Obama is still considered a radical Marxist!
Fox News is based on getting white people frothed up into a paranoid rage about brown people. MSNBC is based on convincing earnest young liberals that white people are to blame for everything bad in the world.
Both business models market the same product: Conflict. Who benefits from stoking these fires of racial discord? Who benefits from keeping working class whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, progressives and Tea Partiers at each other’s throats, voting along racial lines, fighting over table scraps?
If we can always remember to ask that one question, we might finally be on our way to breaking the generational cycle of racial unrest. cs