Thomas Jefferson said that the controversy over the admission of Missouri to the union struck him like a fire alarm in the night: Missouri wanted to join as a slave state, and the resulting controversy almost split the country. It is almost 200 years later, and the issue of race still disturbs America’s peace as nothing else can.
When police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday, it set off rioting and protesting that continued well into the next week. Rioters have hurled bottles and molotov cocktails at police and fired on helicopters, and the police department has used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to quell the unrest. On Wednesday, the Ferguson police provoked condemnation when they violently arrested two journalists. Fortunately, the decision to put the Highway Patrol in charge of local security seems to have reassured residents, and by Thursday evening the unrest appeared to be settling down as all sides lawyered up. On Friday, reports surfaced that both Brown and the witness to his shooting were suspected of involvement in a robbery; this may have implications for the investigation, and may complicate the script for those who wanted to present the story as a simple morality play. But these reports, even if true, don’t change the fact that law enforcement in Ferguson was way off the rails.
By the standards of American racial confrontations, the Ferguson tragedy has been relatively low key. American history has seen hundreds of people killed, whole sections of cities burned down, and troops called in to put down the unrest in a history of confrontations going back to before the Civil War. There have been more pundits on the front lines of this battle than rock and bomb throwing mobs. The people of Ferguson have been for the most part civil and non-violent in their response; where local law enforcement went wrong, state authorities stepped in relatively simply with a common sense approach that seems to be working. Regardless of any controversy about his actions earlier in the night, Michael Brown and his loved ones and friends are entitled to sympathy and support and, more importantly, to an impartial judicial review of what happened. The state of Missouri seems both willing and able to do that; this is not the Jim Crow South. We can reasonably hope that justice will be done in this case and that Atticus Finch’s services will not be required.
Ferguson’s fifteen minutes will soon come to an end. The media circus will move on; the Reverend Mr. Sharpton will go home. The pundits and political operatives will turn to new topics as the midterm campaign picks up steam. But the race and class issues that the week’s events laid bare will remain; America’s racial fault can still bring forth quakes, and many people will wonder whether the tremor in Ferguson is a harbinger of something worse.
This was an explosion in a suburb, not an inner city neighborhood. As the LA Times sums up:
The nighttime standoff and billowing tear gas on West Florissant Avenue reflected simmering racial tensions in Ferguson, population 21,000, where two-thirds of residents are black but police and city officials are predominantly white…
Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black, said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.
Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites, according to an annual report on racial profiling by the Missouri attorney general. Last year, 93% of arrests following car stops in Ferguson were of blacks. Ninety-two percent of searches and 80% of car stops involved blacks, the report said.
This is the new face of American suburbia. Twenty-five years ago Ferguson’s population was largely white; as part of the national move of African Americans from inner cities to suburbs, Ferguson saw its population shift from 74 percent white to 68 percent African American. The poverty rate is high but not unusually so; about one in five residents has an income that qualifies them as being below the poverty line.
Even though many of Ferguson’s black residents are solidly middle class, theirs isn’t the suburban paradise of the 1960s sitcoms. Poverty, high youth unemployment, and family decline (only one third of the city’s children live in two-parent households) mean that law enforcement in Ferguson is harder than in many places. In a place like that, the explosive dynamics of race and class are never far from the surface, and so for better or for worse law enforcement must have a stronger preventive capability than in other communities. (The crime statistics for Ferguson show that it trends a bit above the national average for violent crime, and significantly above average for property crime. They also show how starkly crime trends differ from neighborhood to neighborhood.)
One of the problems in Ferguson seems to be the indirect result of progressive civil service policies and lifetime tenure for state and local employees. In the bad old days of Tammany Hall, when a new ethnic group surged into a city, it would quickly achieve political control and then set about firing all the old teachers, cops, and firemen and handing those jobs out to loyal members of the reigning political machine. There are a lot of problems with what used to be called the “spoils system” (a reference to the old saying “To the victor belong the spoils,” meaning that the winner of the election gets the jobs, government contracts and other goodies), and a return to it wouldn’t make this a better country—but this is how so many cities have ended up with police forces (and teachers and other government workers) of a different race or ethnicity than the community around them. Over and over again, we’ve seen how feelings of mistrust and mutual disrespect surge when these disparities reach a certain point.
As other suburbs experience demographic changes similar to those in Ferguson, we are going to have more localities where the civil service, police, and teachers belong to ethnic and racial groups who have moved on. That’s a day-to-day problem on the streets and in the schools where racial tension can grow. It’s going to be another kind of problem down the road when the underfunded pension bills of retired city workers come due. Will future generations of black Fergusonians want to make deep sacrifices, cutting spending and raising taxes, to pay pensions for a police force that many believe is racist and violent?
Ferguson is like many other American cities and towns on the firing line: law enforcement is a tough job that urgently needs to be done, but there is a trust gap between the residents and the police. On top of that, Ferguson lacks the resources to train, recruit, and manage the very high caliber of personnel required to do the incredibly difficult but necessary job of keeping the peace without being so harsh, arbitrary, or brutal that shootings like this one occur. As per the latest publicly available information, the number of law enforcement officers per resident in Ferguson was declining.
This points to a problem much bigger than some bad decisions by Ferguson law enforcement: What we have is a system for delivering the worst services to the communities that need the best. This is a multidimensional problem in America today, and it affects a whole range of important services. Take schools, for example. Are the public school teachers in places like Ferguson significantly better qualified and more skilled than the national average? Well, “The [Ferguson-Florissant school] district’s average MAP index score ranked 450 out of the 469 Missouri school districts that reported scores for all four tested subject areas.” So probably not.
The migration of blacks out of the inner cities into suburbs is likely to make some of these problems worse. On the one hand, the evaporation of the black middle class has already made many inner city communities worse off by isolating the poorest. Even as many poor people leave the cities in turn, we are likely to see a clustering of middle class people, both black and white, in some suburbs, while others become dominated by the poor. Poor neighborhoods in big cities may lack the political clout to get all the funding they need, but at least poor neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, or Houston have some access to the revenue and tax base of the larger cities of which they are legally part. Suburbs full of poor people will have only their own small streams of revenue to meet the needs of their citizens.
That in turn is going to have a serious impact on the quality and effectiveness of service delivery. In the longer term, it will exacerbate and racially turbocharge the pension problem. Some of the poor suburbs of the future will have had a prosperous past, and the almost entirely white retired municipal workers will expect the impoverished and struggling black (or Hispanic) suburbs of the future to pay every dime of their promised pensions.
So Ferguson is more than an eruption of American racial problems rooted in the past. It is a glimpse into the future of the social problems that have been quietly growing in the suburbs.
Some government policies don’t seem to be helping. One is the “militarization of the police“—the tendency of many police forces around the country to bulk up on military equipment, often provided by the federal government since 9/11. It is sadly true that in the contemporary world we do have to worry about large-scale acts of violence associated with international (and sometimes homegrown) terrorism, and so law enforcement agencies, as first responders, probably need to be better equipped than they were before 9/11. However, it is also true that for normal police work, armored personnel carriers and the like normally do more harm than good. The best policing comes from cops who are part of the communities they serve, who walk beats and are otherwise in constant contact with the people around them. Equipping local police forces like the 82nd Airborne is not the road to lower crime or to better relations between the forces of order and the communities they are supposed to serve.
But the problem isn’t just about overarmed police forces. As a society, we have built up a very impressive apparatus of repression for criminal behavior. That was necessary given the enormous wave of crime and violence the country faced only a few decades ago. Many of us are old enough to remember when American cities were dangerous places; today, cities like New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and many others have seen their murder and robbery rates plummet. That was a huge victory for human rights—the human right, for example, of elderly ladies to walk down to the corner store without fear of being robbed. But now that the crime levels are down, it behooves us to think about how we can ratchet down the system we built to fight a crime wave that has passed. Loosening drug laws, releasing older inmates who no longer pose much danger, finding alternatives to prison as a way to deal with more offenses—all these things can and should be tried in various combinations as we seek to cash in the benefits of a significant national success: the reduction of street crime.
A thoughtful, prudent, and (if necessary) reversible de-escalation of the 1970s and 1980s war on crime would improve the lives of many millions of Americans and, hopefully, help many of them make better lives by becoming more productive members of society—good for us all. It would also save the country billions in prison costs. It would have the added benefit of reducing some of the day to day friction on the streets between law enforcement and some young people, and that would make incidents like the one in Ferguson less likely.
However, in doing this, it really is vital to keep a hard and serious eye on crime. The gains we made were expensive and hard won, and they should not be frittered away. Broken windows still matter, and violent crime remains a threat. Any ratcheting down in the war on crime needs to be carefully thought through. Drug policy seems like a particularly fruitful area to address, because there is a growing social consensus that we can and should manage the drug problem with less recourse to the criminal system—even though we must still manage it somehow. Perhaps by increasing the penalties for violent crime (including crimes committed by persons carrying guns) and reducing legal sanctions against certain types of drug use, we could end up with a safer but less prison-dependent society.
But when it comes to analyzing and trying to learn from the ongoing events in Ferguson, we shouldn’t dance around the main issue. Although the relationship between the races is more just and more hopeful than it was fifty years ago, the overriding issue in 21st-century America remains that of race. As I’ve written in the past on this site, the intersection of the continuing racial problems of the U.S. with the consequences of the erosion of the blue social model are creating a nightmare for many African-Americans, and this is undermining the still fragile foundations of the mass middle class that African-Americans have managed to build in the 50 years since the civil rights movement.
A problem that is 400 years old (the first African slaves were landed in Virginia in 1619) isn’t going to be solved overnight, and the burdens of a terrible racial history weigh on all Americans, whatever their color and however long they or their families have lived in the country. The challenge that lies before us now is to think about how the transformation from an industrial to an information society can be made to work both for the American middle class more generally without regard to race, and for the African-American middle class given its special circumstances.
More and more people in both parties realize that our current approach doesn’t work; Republicans have moved away from “benign neglect”, and at least some Democrats seem to understand that the Great Society approach has run its course. The combination of the housing bubble and the recession devastated the wealth of the black middle class; we are losing ground, not gaining it, when it comes to helping a majority of American blacks exit poverty—and in ensuring that all Americans of whatever color or class are receiving both protection and justice from the forces of the law.
In the meantime, what we are seeing in Ferguson should remind us all that America hasn’t yet come to terms with our country’s deepest wound, and that it continues to impose a terrible cost both on society as a whole and on those least able to bear the burden.
Without meaning to, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar really said it all about race in 21st-century America. Talking to the LA Times about the Ferguson riots, he mused:“If there was an easy way to fix this, we would have already solved the problem.”