What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

After months of deliberations and thousands of pages of evidence, the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Officer Wilson is white. Mr. Brown was black.

The jury, comprised of nine whites and three blacks, sifted through the evidence – 60 witnesses, 70 hours of testimony and a mountain of documents – and found much of it to be contradictory. Some witnesses clearly manufactured their stories, presumably to force a trial or to prevent one. Others presented radically different interpretations of established facts.

Reading about the incident, it seems clear to me that the grand jury could not have come to any other decision. But when most African-Americans (62 percent) read about the shooting of Michael Brown, they believe the case should have gone to trial. So what do they see that I do not see? What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

Just about everything, or at least that is what I suspect a Ferguson protestor might say. Can a middle-aged white guy, living in a largely white, rural community, think about the Michael Brown shooting in the same way a black American thinks about it? Probably not.

For one thing, many white Americans think of this case as an isolated incident that occurred one August afternoon on a Ferguson, Missouri street. But black Americans do not see it as an isolated incident. They see it as part of a disturbing pattern.

The Michael Brown shooting is like one of those Magic Eye pictures: stare at it long enough and an underlying image will emerge – to some people’s eyes, but not to all. Many whites, I suspect, have trouble seeing that image. But when many black people stare at Ferguson, the hidden picture takes shape, and it’s not pretty.

These are some of the images that materialize in the background of Ferguson: the shooting by police of a young man in a Walmart store, when he picked up an air rifle that was for sale. The death of a 12-year-old boy with an airsoft gun, shot by Cleveland police. The tragic death of a 93-year-old Texas woman, killed by police as she waved a real gun in the air. These incidents, and others like them, have occurred in just the past few months. It’s the picture behind the picture, the one middle-aged white guys like me have trouble seeing.

That picture is framed by facts like these: White Americans are more than twice as likely to use marijuana as blacks, yet eight times as many blacks are arrested for possession. Blacks are sentenced to as much time behind bars for a drug offense as whites are for a violent crime. One in three black Americans will spend time in prison, compared to one in seventeen whites. It’s helpful to realize that the anger that erupted in Ferguson was not just about Ferguson.

When I was in college in the seventies, I thought that racial prejudice, and with it racial distancing, was diminishing. When President Obama was elected, not once but twice, it seemed that white America and black America were at last converging into one America. That seems less likely now. I fear the distance between Americans of different races and ethnicities is growing.

There are social, political and economic reasons for this – some of which originate within the black community itself. There are many reasons, but not many solutions. If a solution is to be found, I suspect, it will be found in the Christian, and particularly the evangelical, Church.

Why? Because black and white evangelicals are numerous (a whopping 62 percent of blacks describe themselves as “born again”), and share deeply held and powerfully unifying beliefs. Those beliefs once brought unity to Jews and Gentiles, who were even more divided than America’s blacks and whites. Christ was then able to break “down the wall of hostility” and create “in himself one new people from the two groups.”

If he did it once, he can do it again. But he will not do it for us. He will only do it with us.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/28/2014

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