Jim Crow Alive and Well? Ferguson and White Denial of Racism


So many people want to argue and debate with me concerning the #MichaelBrown shooting in #Ferguson. Friends, it’s not that I would not like to talk about what might be going on, it’s just that I don’t think myself informed sufficiently about the facts to carry on a worthwhile conversation. Those in charge aren’t exactly showing me the evidence, and I wasn’t there. Honestly, anything we’d say is speculation, so why bother? Aren’t there enough opinions floating about the internet already? The one thing I will discuss, however, is the other conversation that has arisen from this tragedy: White denial of racism.

It’s so hard for me to remain composed in this conversation without becoming enraged, that I’m not sure if this piece will only be inflammatory or if it can be useful. I hope for the latter. My second wish is that I don’t offend anyone by inserting my opinion where it might not belong. I don’t mind, though, if I offend a few folks who seem more than willing to make every single conversation about them, and who have absolutely no clue that their White privilege is glaring so bright it’s blinding them. Maybe if those people are offended they’ll stop and think. Maybe if they hear another White voice telling them to reexamine their stance—that they are absolutely wrong, they will understand that what we’re dealing with is toxic sludge we need to remove once and for all.

To explain this point, I will first say that I have been a longtime believer that if I commit no crime, I won’t be targeted by the police. This remains true for me, a White woman in a middle class neighborhood. Authority figures have no problem when I walk down the street at night. My going in and out of convenience stores doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Store owners smile and ask me how I am in their most pleasant please-spend-your-money-here voices. In other words, I do as I please. This isn’t the case for people of color in the US.

While I could discuss what I’ve read about the experiences of people of color in the US, I’d just be a parrot in the conversation. I have never experienced racism. I’ve been a witness, but I’ve never bore the scars of being discriminated against, profiled, humiliated, abused, or had friends and family murdered because of the level of melanin in their skin. The experience of racism is one to which I cannot speak. What I can speak to, though, is how ridiculous it is for someone who has never experienced racism to deny its existence.

In my world I hear a lot of opinions. People feel free to let me know exactly what they believe or think. The amount of people who I have heard utter the phrase “Now that we have elected an African American president, there really is no more racism” is astounding. Of course, this statement is sometimes spewed forth complete with pejorative terms inserted. The irony in that is amazing, but I suppose these folks truly believe that upon the inauguration of President Obama, some ceiling exploded, and we broke into a new realm sans the racist opinion. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact, his election gave the Caucasian community  a false ground to base an argument that we all coexist peacefully now, thereby shutting down the discourse within some circles.

It’s the loss of that discourse—the misbelief that there is no longer anything to work on or discuss, that is our real problem. After all, we once believed that Jim Crow was a thing of the past, too.

Why do we need to keep the conversation alive? We need to listen to the voices who are experiencing racism when they tell us it’s still happening. We need to hear loud and clear that we’ve simply traded one set of racially biased laws for another.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains that, while we may have abolished the Jim Crow laws of the past , we adopted a new Jim Crow. She writes, “As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Just ruminate on that for a minute.

What do you lose as a criminal? Well, as Alexander lists, a person loses the right to adequate housing, job opportunities, higher education, and most of all the right to vote when he or she is a convicted felon. Not being a felon seems like such a simple fix—just don’t commit crime, right? Unfortunately, when you’re a person of color, not only are you more likely to live in less privileged circumstances, you are also targeted by the police more often than Caucasians. Think about how many African Americans or Hispanics you might see on the nightly news shown as criminals rather than in professional roles other than sports figures. Let’s also consider disenfranchisement is nothing new to people of color. The level of disenfranchisement is multigenerational, beginning with slaves who couldn’t vote, moving to the generations where people were murdered for trying to register vote, then to those who were kept from voting with poll taxes and ridiculously biased literacy tests, and now with those who aren’t allowed to vote because they are felons.

What we have in situations like Ferguson, is the creation of a criminal who the police can pursue and kill, and no one is supposed to blink an eye. It’s just another day at the office. I’m not going to debate whether or not Michael Brown committed a crime. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. What I will say is that no matter if he stole something, theft is not punishable by death in the US. Apparently though, if a person is an African American, and I assume any other ethnicity other than White, any crime is punishable by death because we create groups of demonic others whom most of the nation is taught to fear. Put them in prison? Fine. Shoot them multiple times even though no one’s life is in danger and they’re unarmed? Fine. We have a system that robs people of color of their most basic rights every day, albeit away from the gaze of many because they are so deep in denial they cannot see. We create what we call “dangerous” criminals, and then systematically erase their rights because they’re now felons.

So, while maybe the racism isn’t as glaring to us White folk who still believe we’ve done our good deed, people of color can’t help but feel the effects because they are still living in a system that wants to take their rights around every bend when given the opportunity. It’s still a broken system that upholds the rights of some, but not yet all. Some would even say the racial divide never really closed in some places like Ferguson.

According to Jeffrey Smith, a former state senator from St. Louis, writing for New Republic, there are a few things we need to know about Ferguson before we might begin to understand what’s at the core of the subject. Smith writes:

They want white St. Louis to quit it with the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave north St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency of their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them down—or actively impeded them.

“Some agency of their own.” That seems so little to ask in a world where we White people have all the agency we could ever desire. In fact, I’m sure I didn’t understand what “agency” truly was until I began to study the lives of those who absolutely lack agency. Not being able to be in control of my own life is something I can’t really crane my neck enough to understand. Even as a woman I’ve had much more control than people of color. How dare I, then, say that this lack of agency—that racism, doesn’t exist when I don’t even honestly know what it looks or feels like? I’ve never experienced it to see it fade away, so if someone with all the experience in the world is telling me it’s still a thing, I think it’s in not only the best interest of myself, but everyone involved to believe them.

With the US increasing the amount of prisons to hold criminals in our bogus war on drugs, and what is a worse, privatizing prison so that they are institutions made for profit rather than simple penal institutions, the disenfranchisement of and theft of agency from people of color will only increase. It’s the new way to keep the world watching one hand whilst commit nefarious acts with the other.

Our President did not mark the end of racism, for it’s still alive and well as proven by the occurrences in Ferguson . Try not making this conversation the same as every other conversation in US history: White centered. If you’d truly like to be able to say “racism is over,” then perhaps, be part of the solution. Recognize the disease that is spreading once again and help open up the conversation to help eradicate it. The inoculation is made from education, empathy, and action. Denial only creates an epidemic of ignorance and hate.

There is no need for White guilt and shame because, once again, that makes the story about us. What it is time for is to empathize with those who are telling us racism still exists rather than changing the subject or blatantly denying its existence. To do otherwise is to perpetuate the same problems, and create an atmosphere where Ferguson happens over and over again


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