On Ferguson

Write only when you have something to say.

~ David Hare

The last time I wrote on this site was five months ago. I'd been writing here regularly for a few years, and simply put, I felt like I'd run out of things to say, so I said nothing.

Turns out, it's hard to come back from writing nothing. Sure, I've been writing copy all that time, but that's an entirely different skill. In the past week, I've started four different essays. I intended to develop each one into something that I could post here, to serve as a catalyst to doing so regularly, but every single attempt took a weird turn. They all started innocuously enough, but twenty minutes or so into writing them, I'd get angry.

And the anger showed in the writing. It was a general sort of anger, not directed at anything in particular. In the last attempt, I wrote this:

So why does it feel so disgusting? Why do I feel as if we're in the midst of this inescapable downward spiral?

What am I so angry at? Damned if I know. I can blame the web and social media, partly, for amplifying everything that has the potential to outrage. But I know the truth: even if it feels like the opposite is true, the world is getting better. In my third attempt, I wrote this:

We're not screwing everything up. Quite the opposite, in fact: violence is declining, more people are being treated more fairly than ever before, food and healthcare are more prevalent and accessible. Hell, we're landing space probes on comets 3 million miles away.

And then Ferguson.

It's hard to describe my reaction. I was angered when I heard about the grand jury's decision, but it felt very much like so many other disasters: mostly, I felt helpless. There are hurricanes and floods and bombings and shootings and rapes and on and on and on. What can I do about it? What do I even know about it?

And that feeling of helplessness is only exacerbated by the fact that Ferguson is a race issue. I'm a white guy who spends the vast majority of his days alone in a home office, busting out copy for the web. What do I know about this?

Aside: the best explanation I've yet to hear on that subject is this: as a white guy, I'm angry about Ferguson, but I have no idea what it's like to be terrified by it. That's white privilege.

As time went on, I got angrier. I read piece after piece about Ferguson, trying to gain some understanding, hoping someone would tell me what the hell I'm supposed to do. I can't do nothing. Right?

I made the mistake of browsing Facebook for a bit, and I winced time after time as I saw old friends (and some family) spouting some racist bullshit. That, of course, only made me angrier. (And I'm not the only one encountering old racist friends on Facebook.)

I posted link after link to the pieces I'd read. As a writer, words are often my only weapon, but since I had no skin in the game, it was best to leave the microphone in the hands of those that did. I didn't want to add to the noise, and, besides, I still didn't know what I was talking about. Getting angry didn't change that.

But linking to all these pieces felt so cheap. There's a word for it: clicktivism. I've railed against it before. When UNICEF created an ad campaign that declared that liking them on Facebook didn't actually help anybody, I cheered as much as anyone else.

So what the hell am I doing posting all these links? Links even started cropping up railing against exactly what I was doing.

As the evening wore on, I only felt more despondent. This is important—maybe even a turning point for our country—but only if people do something about it. I didn't know what to do with that knowledge.

Then I turned on Chris Hayes's All In, and watched a segment that gave me a bit of relief. Here's the byline:

Darren Wilson’s testimony describing Michael Brown’s almost superhuman strength reflects common, subconscious perceptions about black people in America.

I highly urge everyone reading this to take a few minutes to watch the above segment in full, but here's the gist: white people subconsciously attribute superhuman abilities to black people. Whether we know it or not (that's why it's called subconscious) we all bring biases to the table. And it's not just white biases towards black people: black people are subconsciously biased towards white people, and Asians to whites, and whites to Latinos. Every single race is biased towards any race that is not their own. There is empirical evidence to back this up, and it makes sense from many angles. We're a very tribal species, and most of our nature stems from a desire to protect our tribes (families, sports teams, nations, neighborhoods, whatever).

Something clicked when I heard this, and I thought again of Facebook. There, I see the overt racists that I grew up with, and it wasn't really them who were bothering me. To steal a phrase from Chris Hayes, racists gonna racist. What bothered me more was the people who truly meant well, who weren't even aware of the fact that their opinions were wildly racist.

This being the case (that we all form biases without knowing it), it's easy to see how these biases inform our actions. Wilson may believe every word of what he said, but his inherent bias spoke as loudly as his words did. And his bias influenced his actions.

And our bias informs our policies- those very policies which have led to a deep, systemic problem in this country, one that makes it much scarier for a black teen to exist in America than a white teen.

In the All In segment, Jelani Cobb discusses with Hayes the fruits of those policies: that often, an undertrained white cop is asked to police a minority neighborhood with which he or she has no affiliation or knowledge. To make matters worse, cops tend to see people at their worst possible moments: cops aren't called when everything is going smoothly.

This unfamiliarity, combined with the previously mentioned bias, produces results like Ferguson (and Cleveland).

Cobb also lays out the possibility of a different result, one in which the system trains officers properly, to be aware of their bias, to integrate and serve with a community instead of just policing it. He paints a picture of cops stopping to visit with local business owners, of making themselves part of the community they're there to protect.

It's hard to imagine a police force trained well and integrated into the community responding to protests with tear gas and armored tanks.

I'm still trying to make sense of all this. More than anything, I'm listening, but I'm also trying to work through my own feelings. I know that posting links isn't going to solve anything, but I am convinced that words matter (I am a writer, after all). Words can open us up to new experiences, can widen our empathic horizons, can help us share our experiences.

So maybe all this social media bullshit is something. We've made enormous strides as a society, but the strides were made when someone started a discussion, and that discussion led to action. All America is doing now is starting a discussion. After all, we can't fix a problem we're not aware of.