Ferguson’s Despair and the Devastation of White Privilege

All day people gathered, waiting, daring to hope, that maybe this time black lives would matter. Minutes passed. Then hours. And, as darkness descended on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the now enormous crowd continued to wait patiently — trying its best to remain optimistic. Perhaps, despite so many decades of history, black people really could find justice in the American legal system.

That such a faith still flickered was, itself, remarkable. Everyone standing outside of the Ferguson police station awaiting news on whether the grand jury would indict police officer Darren Wilson well remembered what happened on February 26, 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed. Nothing. They also had noticed that, though Martin’s killer went free, in the very same state, black mother Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison merely for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. And, of course, they had just heard, only two days earlier, that yet another black child, this time 12-year-old Tamir Rice, had also been shot to death by the police.

But having faith and clinging to hope is what it means to be human. Even when the past, as well as most recent present, tell people that optimism is wholly unfounded and that they should be realists not romantics, somehow they still believe.

And then they don’t.

At 9:00 p.m. on November 24, 2014, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch stepped to the podium and explained — in fact, explained better than most any defense attorney ever could — why Darren Wilson would not, and in fact, should not, be indicted for killing unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

Hope then became despair. And despair then became all-consuming and almost impossible to contain. For some it took the form of uncontrollable sobs. For others it was expressed through screams. And for still others it erupted in smashing and burning things inanimate. In its various articulations, though, it was a despair that would fill any parent’s heart, and spread like fire through any parent’s veins, if their child had been shot to death and no one cared.

And yet too many Americans — overwhelmingly white Americans — didn’t remotely recognize, let alone understand, Ferguson’s despair. Why? Because, at the end day, they don’t see this nation’s black children — its Trayvon’s, Michael’s, and Tamir’s — as their children. Indeed they find it hard to see black children as children at all.

But while so much of white America couldn’t relate to the utter anguish of Ferguson’s black community it certainly worried mightily about how community members might react to the news that Michael Brown’s killer would not face trial. This reaction, whites knew, could be potentially disruptive to both privilege and power. And so they tried to contain this torment with tanks and tear gas.

And, when even these military measures couldn’t keep people from expressing their grief, and indeed only deepened their misery, these same white Americans began the shaming process. They began wondering publicly, shaking their heads most disapprovingly, why blacks can’t express their feelings more suitably, in a more appropriate way. They wished, loudly, for this grief to be less raw. They called for it to be far more civil. They desired it be expressed with greater decorum.

But this kind of distress, parental yet powerless, can’t possibly be proper or polite. It is perpetually provoked, it is historically-bound, and, thus, it is bone-deep.

This is a desolation born of the fact that we remain, and have always been, a nation in which only some parents, specifically the parents of America’s black and brown children, must continually suffer loss with no justice. From the parents of Emmett Till, to the parents of Medgar Evers, to the parents of Rodney King, to the parents of Sean Bell, to the parents of Yvette Smith, to the parents of countless other African Americans, justice is rarely served and, therefore, black pain and sorrow are ever-present.

To be sure, since white Americans haven’t experienced this long history of being terrorized by racist mobs and, today, don’t live in continuous fear of having their sons and daughters felled by police bullets, this ever-present pain may indeed be difficult to grasp. But for them to imagine it to be illogical or irrational is, in fact, more devastating to the future of this country than any on-the-ground expression of black distress could ever be.

After all, it is this sort of dismissal of palpable pain — a blindness and coldness to black humanity — that has caused so much trauma and tension in the first place. Indeed, if this nation ever hopes to make good on the promise of “justice for all,” and if it has any hope of actually giving every person in this country a rational reason to believe in the future, then America’s white people must reckon with their own power and privilege.

In fact, white people in this country are very well-aware that their kids are not assumed to be criminals as they walk down the street. They also well know that their kid’s skin color alone means they are unlikely to be shot to death by the police — even if they are suspected of committing a crime. And, here is the real point: were their children to be unarmed and yet killed with impunity, America’s whites would be sobbing, smashing and, yes, screaming for justice.

And, so… it is time for white Americans to stop shaming and to speak out against the killing of black children too.