Why Ferguson comes as no surprise to me
Standing still is never an option so long as inequities remain embedded in the very fabric of the culture.
Tim Wise, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in the Willows Hospital, a home for unwed mothers on October 2, 1955. What does this have to do with anything? Well, not that much, except that Missouri has been in the news an awful damn lot of late and for all the worst reasons – deservedly so.
I grew up in Columbia, a university/college town set almost perfectly in between St. Louis and my natal city. It’s an awful-looking town to approach and absolutely gorgeous within – a whole lot like a geode, actually. It’s a whole lot of gorgeous old academic buildings, some truly magnificent houses and green belts that rival rain forests in the summer. It’s cicadas and blue jays and whippoorwills and a great variety of poisonous snakes and spiders that bother only those who don’t know how to avoid them, limestone cliffs and rivers that rush over slabs of rock that have been there since Missouri was part of an inland ocean.
I go back every five to seven years – way too infrequently given my father and stepmother still live there. If I can muster up the money for a plane ticket – and my courage (I am terrified of flying), I will go back this fall. Autumn in Missouri rivals New England for sheer beauty.
The last time I actually perambulated about there was 2005, 9 years ago. Regardless of the Mason-Dixon line’s bifurcating the state, declaring that the top half was the North, Missouri is the South. Trust me on this, y’all (the proper spelling – ya’ll is incorrect), it is. There is a picture taken in Boone County, where Columbia is located, of a sweet young white family having a nice picnic under the dangling corpse of a lynched young black man. Mercy help me, this is where I grew up and it hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot, whatever it says on paper.
The picture was in a book apparently never digitized, but no matter. It’s horrific and the image is burned on my brain. You don’t really need the cruel banality of a placid picnic with horror, violence, hate and desolation hanging right overhead burned into yours.
When I visited in 2005, one of the first things I noticed was there were NO black people shopping downtown. Not. One. Now, segregation officially ended in 1966, as I recall – it was my sixth grade year and personally, I was thrilled. Before that, K through 12, black kids went to the Frederick Douglass school. I never did understand that, so, in my humble, 11-year-old opinion, it was long overdue, and while I was none too pleased that a pack of black kids were now hunting my delicate, gentle, snarky baby brother, it seemed like the right thing to do.
So imagine my surprise, nearly 30 years later, to still see a lily-white downtown. One young mixed-race woman was working in a shop and that was pretty much it except for a few homeless folks on the periphery and one incredibly stylish, gorgeous man around my age who took my parents’ social obliviousness (he was a stranger – I don’t think it was about color) as a blow (almost invisibly, but the flinch was there) – other than that, every face was some shade of palest beige, with the occasional exception made for Asian or eastern Indian students.
So, I started asking. Among those I asked was the young woman who waited on us at the pancake house, the young woman who was working three jobs as a single mom to send her kids to a private school so they could have a better future – was it any better since I’d left in 1973? Her face went grim – no, it wasn’t any better at all.
It was no better than the days when I heard the “N” word used by whites as if it was a legitimate component of polite conversation. It had not improved since even the most dignified black elder was called by his or her first name in a time where that Was Not Done. It had not gotten one whit better since I ran from many aspects of life there, which included the racism that incensed me so.
It’s not conscious for most white people. It’s part of the texture of white existence, this bigotry. To many, it’s not even something they’re aware of and if you ask them, they’ll tell you they aren’t racist — no way, not at all. These folks should ask themselves what they’ve done to change things, then. Their answer will give them the truth of their feelings. Even the best of humans need work on this, regardless of origin. But this is about white people, because that’s my group and my responsibility.
I remember my wake-up call at the tender age of 4, when my cousin Pat, who lived in one of St. Louis’ first mixed neighborhoods (Windermere Place, right next to the ritzy Clayton district) heard me remark of a black man picking up garbage cans, “I don’t like those people.”
She gave me a cool look and remarked, “How would you like it if people hated you because you were white?”
It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I’d been unfair. I’d been unconsciously cruel, even though it was to people I never got to see, never got to meet. We were kept apart and thus alien – forever “other.” But whites saw this as their land and all people not white and Christian would forever be “other” in their own land. Of course they had to keep us apart. To normalize relationships would cause an easing of hate and oppression of its own accord as fear of change also ebbed – and they couldn’t have that. They’d lose power and they had and still have that power clenched so tightly that, like the eagle, it’s grinning.
The problem is, when bigotry is woven into the fabric of a society, of an entire people – and when nearly all the power is in the hands of those people – you’re going to get Ferguson. You get a population of people who harbor a secret – or not so secret – hate, wrapped up with the subconscious understanding that this hate is wrong, which engenders guilt, which further fuels the hate. You also get a population who is understandably furious about centuries of social and economic oppression and mistreatment – and the joyous experience of being blamed for a great deal of it – and that rage engenders fear in the haters who have maintained and nurtured this system of privilege and oppression, which further fuels the hate. It also causes people to overreact – the white cop and Michael Brown. The white homeowner and the young man selling magazine subscriptions.
It all comes down to seeing each other’s human faces, which seems so hard for people to do. It also means that we all have to lay down the hate. Lay down the fear. Let it go. Learn to be neighbors. True, not every human is a treat to live near, but that’s got nothing to do with color. There are ruffians of every persuasion and I don’t want to live near them, either. But honestly? I don’t care what color you are, as long as you grin back at me when we pass in the grocery store.
It won’t be until we’re just folks to each other that Ferguson and places like it will never happen again.