August 24, 2014

Ferguson Shooting Exposes Deep-rooted Racial Schism in the US

R Arun Kumar

SINCE the last fortnight Ferguson, a town in Missouri, United States, is burning with indignation and protests. The spark that lit off the protests is the shooting of an 18-year old Afro-American, Michael Brown. The New York Times in its editorial stated that the “circumstances of Mr. Brown’s death are, inevitably, in dispute. Witnesses said he was walking home from a convenience store when stopped by an officer for walking in the middle of the street, and they accused the officer of shooting him multiple times when his hands were raised over his head. The police said Mr. Brown had hit the officer”. President Obama, the first Afro-American president of the country, condemned the incident saying that it was “heartbreaking” and “also a reminder of a toxic racial legacy that still infects cities and suburbs across America”.

The shooting of innocent Brown had blown the lid off the growing discontent among the people of the town, which got expressed in continuous protests against the police and the administration. The police responded to the protests in their usual high-handed manner. Brown joins a growing list of Afro-Americans (Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis) who were shot dead by the police – a force consisting predominantly of whites. In most of the cases, the accused go unpunished, further angering and alienating the Afro-Americans. The acquittal of four white policemen in the beating of a black motorist in 1992, which sparked week-long protests involving thousands of people in Los Angeles and left 51 people dead, is a grave reminder. It is a sad testimony of the situation that such incidents are still happening 51 years after Martin Luther King delivered his inspirational 'I have a dream' speech, demanding an end to racial prejudice and oppression. In that speech, King thundered: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. 51 years hence, Afro-Americans are still marching on streets demanding justice.

That the US has marched forward in the last fifty years, since the civil rights movement, cannot be doubted at all. A host of Afro-Americans are holding high constitutional posts including the POTUS (President of the United States), are multi-millionaires and celebrities. But all these do not hide the deep-rooted social and economic divisions that lie beneath the US society. In fact, Obama himself acknowledged as much in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of King's speech: “The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it's grown...we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many – for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call – this remains our great unfinished business”.

Despite the tall-talk of the economic growth in the US, it is by now becoming clear that the 'growth' failed to 'percolate' to the poorer sections of the society. Moreover, it is the poor who are the worst affected from the economic crisis. All these factors are glaringly visible in Ferguson, a small town with 21,000 inhabitants in the St. Louis metropolitan area. In fact, it is ranked as one of the most segregated localities in the US in a 2011 study conducted by the Brown University. According to a Los Angeles Times report, “This part of the St. Louis region took the brunt of the foreclosure crisis, with subprime loans turning bad and investors scooping up cheap houses to rent. Auto plants that had sustained a black middle class shut down”. The report further quotes Shermale Humphrey, a 21-year-old who joined the protests: “It's a shortage of everything. It's a shortage of jobs. Of African Americans on the police force and in government. Of people not being able to get a good education”. The Obama administration had done precious little to overcome this situation, in spite of all the rhetoric.




Brookings Institute had done a survey of the Ferguson neighbourhood and came out with some startling details. “The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level. At the start of the 2000s, the five census tracts that fall within Ferguson’s border registered poverty rates ranging between 4 and 16 percent. However, by 2008-2012 almost all of Ferguson’s neighbourhoods had poverty rates at or above the 20 percent threshold at which the negative effects of concentrated poverty begin to emerge. (One Ferguson tract had a poverty rate of 13.1 percent in 2008-2012, while the remaining tracts fell between 19.8 and 33.3 percent)”.

The report argues that this is not a phenomenon confined to Ferguson alone, but is visible across the US. “Within the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighbourhoods where more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line more than doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012. Almost every major metro area saw suburban poverty not only grow during the 2000s but also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighbourhoods. By 2008-2012, 38 percent of poor residents in the suburbs lived in neighbourhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher. For poor black residents in those communities, the figure was 53 percent”. It is this denial that has led to the outpour of anger in Ferguson and the killing of Brown has acted as a trigger.

Many of the poor Afro-Americans feel that over and above the economic denial, they are still subjected to racial segregation and denial of access to jobs and administrative posts. As one of the protestors in Ferguson expressed: “Many of these towns are still run like little fiefdoms”. The reason is not far to fathom as, “just three of Ferguson's 53 police officers are African American. Six of seven City Council members are white. So are six of the seven school board members, who run a district with a student body that's 78 percent black”. And African-Americans account for 86 percent of the traffic stops in the city, and 93 percent of the arrests after those stops.

Adding more salt to the wounds in Ferguson is the way the shooting case is being handled. Protesters are demanding prosecutor Bob McCulloch to step aside, because he has deep connections with the police force. “McCulloch's father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect”. They apprehend justice will not be done under the present administration, justifiably so, as a history of such trials in other parts of the country indicates.

The entire episode of the shooting of Brown and the way it was handled has exposed the hollowness of the human rights record of the US. US – a country which has hacked into e-mails and cellphones of ordinary Americans as well as leaders of other countries, including traditional US allies (as revealed by Edward Snowden); a country that has witnessed numerous shooting sprees on its own land, killing hundreds of innocent children and citizens. One should not forget that US is also a country that has launched incessant aerial attacks through both manned flights and also drones on foreign soil, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Akin to a pot calling the kettle black, the US has assaulted over 200 countries for what it terms as “poor human rights record” and this list includes virtually all the countries on the map, except for itself.

The Ferguson incident exposes the deep-rooted racial schism that exists in the US society. The economic crisis further reinforced the schism. This incident once again proves that 'identity politics', symbolism and rhetoric can only help in plastering the existing differences in the society, but not in healing them. What is needed is a strike at the root of the problem, a fight for the eradication of all sorts of exploitation and oppression.