White Privilege & the Ferguson Report

Last week I attended the White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Ky. The name of the conference always raises eyebrows, especially when people don’t understand the concept of white privilege.

The conference gets criticism on both sides. It also gets the attention of the KKK, which tells me they must be doing something right.

So is it a bunch of white people sitting around in a guilt trip? No. It’s not the Privileged White People Conference. It’s about realizing the various kinds of bias we have in our lives—racial and otherwise—how it often leads to oppression of various forms, and what we can do to stop it.

The fact that I’m a white, anglo-saxon male with a college degree gives me certain privileges and biases that color how I see the world. It doesn’t mean I’m a racist, but it does mean I’m immersed in a society built on discrimination. Many of those biases have unknowingly become a part of who I am. It comes up in everything from the color of bandages (why does the “flesh color” match my skin but not my son’s?) to how we related to the police.

For example, Franklin Graham seems to have a different relationship to the police than the black citizens of Minneapolis.

“Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.” -Franklin Graham

“People just feel alienated from the police, or don’t trust the police, or don’t think maybe that the kid is going to be treated fairly, or don’t think that calling the police makes a difference, or don’t feel empowered to engage the police.” -School Board Member Don Samuels, who lives in predominately black North Minneapolis (in a report on the racial bias in Minneapolis policing)

There are lot of other sources that can explain white privilege better than I can. But these are the basics. And I think it’s important because we like to think we’ve come along way in America. The civil rights movement was 50 years ago. We have a black president. Aren’t we past all that now?

We’re Not Post-Racial

Unfortunately, no we’re not. Incidents like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson have shown how racial bias and discrimination can infect an entire system and lead to disparities and even death.

Up until a few weeks ago that was something we could debate. The non-indictment of Darren Wilson seemed to justify all the doubters and give people reason to reject the Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter protestors.

While we’ll never know what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown (the Justice Department decided there was reasonable doubt), we do have proof of a systemic racism in the Ferguson Police Department.

The Ferguson Report gives justification to those Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter protestors. There may not be the evidence to bring the justice they want for Michael Brown, but there is loads to back up their claims about unfair police practices.

I’ve been reluctant to read the Ferguson Report. These are hard conversations to have and sometimes it’s easier to just ignore it all.

But being at the conference this past week I’m realizing how important it is to have these conversations. It will be difficult. I will likely say something stupid and need forgiveness.

But we must have these conversations and move forward.

This country was founded on power and privilege. From the very beginning we declared that “all men are created equal,” leaving out women and not really meaning those words as we soon defined some men as three-fifths of a person.

Sure, that was hundreds of years ago and people have changed. But vast inequities and bias have continued over the years, whether it’s something well known like the Jim Crow laws or something we rarely talk about like the red line practices in real estate. And we’re seeing evidence that these biases continue to harm people today, whether it’s policing or education or payment gaps.

The Ferguson Report

So I started reading the Ferguson Report today. It’s a 105-page PDF detailing their findings. It’s bleak stuff.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. …

Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. …

Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. …

We discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control. …

That FPD officers believe criticism and insolence are grounds for arrest, and that supervisors have condoned such unconstitutional policing, reflects intolerance for even lawful opposition to the exercise of police authority. These arrests also reflect that, in FPD, many officers have no tools for de-escalating emotionally charged scenes, even though the ability of a police officer to bring calm to a situation is a core policing skill.

And it just goes on and on. I haven’t even read half of it yet.

What’s perhaps most frightening is that it continues today. The report highlights one incident from February 2015 (weeks before the report itself is released) when the police threatened to arrest protestors who were filming. Clearly the Ferguson Police Department still hasn’t learned to de-escalate situations.

After reading the report it’s no wonder the Michael Brown confrontation with Darren Wilson went the way it did. Given the fear and distrust on both sides, it’s amazing more people aren’t dead.

It’s Not Just Ferguson

And before we write this off as something that only happens somewhere else, we’re seeing similar reports and issues elsewhere (like Minneapolis). Certainly not to the extreme of Ferguson, and I’m not saying all cops are racist, but these are real and wide spread problems.

Calling In vs. Calling Out

It’s not as simple as Franklin Graham suggests—obey the authorities and you’ll be fine.

Let’s have a broader understanding of who we are as people. Just because you see the world a certain way does mean everyone sees it that way. Can we stop dismissing racism and discrimination with all these excuses? Can we start listening to the people who are crying out for the equal treatment this country has long promised and so often failed to deliver?

One thing they talked about at the White Privilege Conference was the idea of calling people in instead of calling people out. I don’t want to just call out Franklin Graham or police officers or whoever else. But I want to call them (and you and me and everyone) in to the work of recognizing our bias, our discrimination, our racism, and working to end it.

And it’s likely something that will never end. We’ll always have our own privilege, our own way of seeing the world that will color how we do things. But let’s at least acknowledge it, let’s minimize the negative effects, let’s work for the improvement of our society and world.

(Damn, I sound idealistic. But what else is there?)

One thought on “White Privilege & the Ferguson Report”

  1. I have not read the report but I have been reading things written by people who have. In a town of about 21000 there are 16000 people with outstanding arrest warrants, many with several warrants.

    Some might view this as proof that residents of Ferguson just need to obey the law. But in context of the rest of the report that says that residents of Ferguston are cited at a rate of nearly 600 non-traffic violations per 1000 people a year you see where the problem is. The Missouri state average was in the 20s per 1000.

    And there is lots of documentation about police and other officials erasing violations for White friends.

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