Sunday, December 7, 2014

Making Sense of Ferguson

Following the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, there is reason to believe that police officers are free to murder civilians with impunity. Granted, there is a difference of opinion on whether the officer who killed Michael Brown was justified in doing so. And out of respect for this difference of opinion, I am saying “reason to believe” even though my first inclination was to write “definitive proof.” I won’t try to conceal my personal bias, which rests on the conviction that people who possess lethal weapons have a responsibility to use them with restraint, and to place a check on their own cowardly impulse to kill rather than accept even the barest hint of danger to their own safety.

In reflecting on the Ferguson killing, I eventually realized that if one is to believe in some of the principles on which this country is founded, one must have courage. It takes courage to believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It takes courage to believe that every citizen has a right to the due process of law. It takes courage to accept a form of government that values the lives of all of its citizens, as opposed to a form of government where force is absolute and disobedience is not tolerated.

When people lack courage, they won’t honestly admit to being cowards. They won’t admit it, but they reject the credo, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Instead, they hide behind a veil of self-righteousness. 

The George Wallace Republican

George Wallace is the archetypal conservative coward, who was so frightened by the idea of black children mixing with white children that he declared, “As your governor, I shall resist any illegal federal court order, even to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door in person, if necessary.” He was so frightened of civil disobedience that he said, “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it'll be the last car he'll ever lay down in front of.” This is part of that same unfortunate tradition which goes back to the Jim Crow era, in which blacks were punished for walking on the same side of the street as whites.

The George Wallace Republican of today does not openly espouse racist attitudes and may not see him- or herself as racist. To illustrate the self-righteous attitude behind which moral cowardice lurks, refer to Rod Dreher’s stunningly obtuse piece, titled Tips for Not Getting Shot by Cops. It includes advice such as “When a police officer tells you to stop walking down the middle of the road, do what he says.” I agree that citizens ought to comply with police officers’ instructions, but the article is galling in its failure to explain why it is that African Americans keep getting killed by police when they have committed minor infractions, or in the case of Eric Garner, they have committed no crime at all other than exhibiting uppity behavior. 

The Al Sharpton Democrat

Al Sharpton became famous in the 1980’s for championing the cause of Tawana Brawley, a girl who claimed that she had been raped by five white men. It turned out that Ms. Brawley had been lying about the whole thing. Mr. Sharpton was not ashamed of having tarnished the reputations of the falsely accused (among whom were a police officer and district attorney), but has instead made a career of showing up wherever an outrage against racial equality has occurred. Like the Biblical hypocrites, he steals the limelight from the victims and parades his own high-mindedness in front of the cameras. 

For a while, Ms. Brawley had been a cause célèbre. Celebrities including Bill Cosby offered a reward for evidence that would bring the rapists to justice. Mr. Cosby was perhaps grateful for the opportunity to publicly demonstrate his commendable attitudes. 

The Al Sharpton Democrat cares about racial injustice but enjoys a certain detachment. It is enough to declare one's opinion that the Michael Brown shooting was wrong. There is no reason to consider one's own complicity in creating a situation in which African American men are second class citizens who are feared and hated by the police officers who are charged with protecting them.

One Whig’s Opinion

We live in a society where many people are disadvantaged. And it is clear that a disproportionate number of the disadvantaged are members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Many people believe that the situation can be best explained in terms of racism. 

It is possible, however, that the root of the problem is the ongoing program by a privileged few to control the means of enjoying political influence and wealth. The privileged few may be composed of a disproportionate number of whites. Yet, the problem is not intrinsically a problem of race.

Whites are not exempt from suffering extreme political and economic disadvantage. Nor can we expect that privileged black people will remember and take to heart the historical legacy of their race (example).

Although it is almost certainly true that Michael Brown would not have been killed if he had been white, there are two ways of viewing this situation. The more popular view is that this is strictly a matter of race; thus, whites do not need to worry about being shot in the street like dogs. 

The less popular view is that the injustice that we allow blacks to suffer will, in time, be suffered by whites. The political and economic disadvantage that others suffer, we will suffer in time. And we may someday lament the fact that the American people did not declare with firmness and unanimity that the death of Michael Brown was an injustice that can never be repeated.

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