Yet Another Sore Spot
By Dr. Bill Spriggs
On Aug. 9, police in Ferguson, Missouri shot Michael Brown to death, an unarmed Black teenager. The closed way in which
the police responded to request for information on the shooting, and their aggressive actions against peaceful
protestors in the after math of the shooting have opened yet another sore spot in a nation that is splintering from all
levels of gross inequality. The fissures ripping at the nation come from race and class, as we struggle to regain our
economic footing; the simple ability of Americans to hold a job, feed, shelter, cloth and provide for the health of
their families. It boils down to the simple word: Dignity.
A problem with America is the paradox that it can be a nation with high compassion, but also a nation with no empathy.
Central American children fleeing violence and in desperation making a long and dangerous journey to the land they think
is full of milk and honey, with streets lined with gold, are greeted by angry mobs as their buses take them to detention
centers. Cuban children who drifted across the Florida Straits, on the other hand, were once greeted with open arms.
African American children facing gang violence in their neighborhoods, like Chicago, elicit a litany of epithets
accusing them of different pathological maladies. And, as in the case of Ferguson, a criminalization that can end in
being the victim of police violence.
The interpretation people are giving to the incident in Ferguson highlights the racial inequality in our nation, and the
disappearance of empathy once the real race card is played. The police chief of Ferguson Thomas Jackson fueled that
divide by releasing a prejudicial video of Brown having a confrontation with a convenience store clerk over $42 worth of
cigars. We hope we live in a land in which every suspected petty thief is not summarily shot-or at least we have sent
thousands of our troops to protect Afghanistan from fanatical Taliban fighters who think shooting unarmed suspects is
justice. Yet, Jackson reveals his clear prejudice in reviewing this tragedy by equating petty theft with shooting
unarmed people, if the thief is a black man.
Fortunately, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon realized how badly Jackson was handling the situation and sent in the Missouri
State Troopers to retain order in Ferguson. The Missouri State Trooper Nixon placed in charge was Captain Ron Johnson,
who also happens to be African American. The stark difference to Captain Johnson maintaining peace and allowing for
citizens to exercise their constitutional rights to voice their concerns, and Jackson's ineffective tactics to
intimidate peaceful demonstrators and further flame the conflict show both the importance of diversity in leadership,
and more importantly that, in this case, the poorer performance was by the white police chief.
Captain Johnson's professionalism and success in handling a very tense situation could help to turn the event into a
moment when empathy could re-enter the conversation about Brown's death. The juxtaposition of a highly competent African
American law officer and Brown's tragedy, might get some people to think about Brown as a human, and wonder about our
sense of justice in a color-blind way. It could make the whole of the country say, this isn't about race, this is about
justice, trials-by-jury and a nation of laws; not lynching.
But, this is also about dignity. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the employment situation for July on
August 1, it reported that for out-of-school youth (those under 24), the unemployment rate for whites was 12.4 percent
while it was 27.4 percent for African Americans. The unemployment rate for white high school dropouts in that group was
20.8 percent, a figure lower than blacks as a whole, and almost equal to the unemployment rate for African American
college graduates in that group of 20.4 percent. But, really, is there little wonder at such a disparity when the death
of Brown, a recent high school graduate due to start college in a few weeks, elicits such painful indifference from so
many? And, when a police chief clearly sees the race of the victim more than the circumstances of the situation? If
Brown's family lacks our empathy, and in his death the dignity for us to deeply question the Ferguson Police, how do we
imagine there is an equal playing field when someone just asks for a job so they can feed their family and cloth their
William E. Spriggs, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Economics at Howard University.