A Cause Without a Cure
by Dr. George H. Elder
I despise the nightly news shows. As usual, the press is doing its very best to beat a story to death, as in the Ferguson debacle. Reporters are acting like flies buzzing about feces, and after awhile so cover the material as to obscure what is actually there. Mix a remarkable lack of imagination with ample hyperbole, and one gets the US press, which is infamous for making as much noise as news. And they drone on and on, gagging us with special reports that are often much ado about nothing. So, what can we take from the Ferguson story that is helpful?
The convenience store’s videotapes demonstrate that Michael Brown had “probably” acted like a thug on the night he was killed, committing petty thievery and physical intimidation toward a much smaller person. That being said, he did not deserve to be shot down, although no one is quite sure what transpired between he and Officer Darren Wilson. I suspect Wilson was scared witless, not that this justifies shooting someone six times. Yet fear can easily be transformed into anger and irrationality, and thus we have the distinct possibility of both Brown and Wilson behaving in ways that led to an all-too-frequent outcome. Yet even if this is the case, the local Black community is inflamed and many Whites are largely mystified by what has unfolded.
The degree of racial divide that is crawling out of this fiasco is palpable. A recent Pew poll reveals a staggering divergence in views between Blacks and Whites. For example, only 37% of Whites feel Brown’s death reveals big issues about race, while 80% of Blacks do. When asked if race is getting too much attention, 47% of Whites say yes, while just 18% of Blacks answer in the affirmative. In addition, 60% of Blacks feel the police reaction has gone too far, but only 33% of Whites feel this way. Finally, a huge majority of Blacks (76%) have no faith in the ongoing investigation, while Whites are three times more likely to trust the investigation.
Yes, scratch the surface, and the racial divide comes gushing out. I do not believe Brown is a great exemplar for anyone to rally around, but I fully understand that the manner of his death was a reactionary impetus for many Blacks–a collective injury of sorts. To be sure, many innocent Black people are hassled by the police for no reason, which is something I have witnessed. On the other hand, many Black youths indulge in criminal behavior–with homicide being the number one cause of death in 18- to 24-year-old Black men. In Palm Beach County, Florida, five times as many Blacks are killed by homicide as die in car accidents, and in some cities the murder rates are staggering. For example, in New Orleans, a whopping 466 per 100,000 young Blacks are lost by homicide each year vs. the national average of 77–greater by a factor of 6. In fact, on a national level, young Black men are 6 times more likely to die from homicide and 7 times more likely to commit murder than are Whites the same age.
There are lots of reasons for these statistics, as in poor graduation rates, high unemployment, poor paying jobs, limited opportunities, gangs, sociocultural influences, and what I call White Fright. To be blunt, some White folks are scared witless by young Black men–judging the whole by the actions of a relative few. The police certainly have a history of racial profiling, and I ponder what else they can do given the existing crime stat’s. This goes for both Black and White officers, with their reactions often being a matter of personal welfare. Hey, when an officer makes a mistake of the streets, he or she can die from the miscue. So the police go with the odds, and thus see many young Black men in terms of high-risk. It is a very sad and miserable truth, for which I do not see an easy cure.
I was a coach for 11 years, and worked with numerous young Black men. Of course, these were college kids, with most being well educated and very determined. Thus the Blacks I worked with differed a bit from national averages, and went on to do some remarkable things. I did not witness the violence or criminality manifest by some young Black men, and thus never developed White Fright. Hell, I was much more criminally inclined than my charges when I was young, being somewhat of a thug myself. The essential point is, not all young Black men are the same, which is something White folks and the police have to recognize. Moreover, even Black men who come from very tough and poor neighborhoods differ in personality and tendencies, as do all people in general.
Yet many folks fail to see this because we tend to be categorical thinkers. It is largely a matter of how our brains are wired to react. We notice a few traits, and from these invoke a stereotypical schema that dictates our subsequent actions and reactions. The survival benefits of such a mechanism are obvious, as in rapid flight from a charging animal or other dangerous situation–an act of self-preservation that is governed by rapidly processing and reacting to a few cues. The “whole” does not matter when we think this way–just a few traits. Some of the schemas we develop are derived from harsh experience and others are learned via family, friends, and the media. We thus watch 48 Hours, listen to the news, and learn what to fear. In short, reactionary prejudice can be taught.
So a White dude sees a Black guy heading his way on the street. ‘My God! That’s a Black guy! I’m screwed! What to do? Oh, what to do?’ Whitey quickly crosses the street to avoid conflict with a man who might be a kindly minister or paramedic. The details are lost once the schema is invoked, with fear guiding many actions, thoughts, and reactions. And Lord help any White person who sees a group of five or more inner-city young Black men milling around outside a store or on the corner. This is a no-go zone for most White folks–including me. Some of the activated fear responses are well placed, though not always.
Thing is, a gathering of young Black men is often also a no-go zone for many Black people, folks who live in communities wherein violence is endemic. Yet one has to get milk and food for the kids, come whatever may be waiting around the next corner. That women or man going to the store can’t walk away or cross the street to escape those kids, and knows very well that everyday life carries great risks in this part of town. But given the economics, where else can one go? In fact, the vast majority of violence young Black men unleash is on other Blacks.
We should recognize here that violence does not stem from young Blacks alone. I have good friend who is Black, and he got hassled the other day by some ignorant, red-neck White teens–kids that are a blight on any community. He confronted them, and I am thankful he wasn’t shot or attacked. Such things can and do happen in rural Vermont, and are occurring at an increasing rate. “You do not know what it is like,” my friend has advised. “It is a constant threat, the same one you would feel in Washington.”
I do not see an easy cure for any of this. I think a family unit including a Mom and Dad is important in providing children with a model on how to live well, and one of the central problems in many communities is that such family units simply do not exist. Kids are born and raised by single moms, with their fathers being nowhere near. Many of these fathers lack a sense of personal responsibility, one that is usually instilled while being part of a family. Thus the children of these wayward fathers grow up and repeat the often dreary model of the life that they experienced, and so it goes–deadbeat dads giving rise to deadbeat dads.
This isn’t a problem of Black families alone, for many are loving and caring. In addition, numerous White families are undergoing parental divides, with fathers bugging out to pursue whatever pleases their fancy. I fear where all this will lead. At its core, this tendency to avoid personal responsibility is all about selfishness–a prioritization of the vagaries of one’s transient desires to that of familial duties. It is hard to raise a family, especially when one has no education, no job, and lives in a society that prioritizes the self above all else. It is not a matter of Black or White. It is a matter of poor values and limited opportunities–which run rampant when the idea of family turns into dust.
So what to do? Punishment is merely a means of treating a disease of the soul and not of preventing it. Of course, there is often no recourse but punishment when punk kids make surviving on “their” home turfs miserable for an entire community. The only long-term salvation I can see is crafting a context wherein the family structure can be preserved–which is easier said than done. So what do we do in Ferguson and other places to achieve this end? That is the essential question that is never asked. We cannot do a damn thing at present. Now that the reporters, anarchists, and their like have grabbed onto the issue, the entire town has become a nightly battle zone. This will burn itself out eventually, and then we can turn our thoughts toward how families can be preserved. At present, I do not have a clue, and am not ashamed to admit it.