By Jim Miller
Along with so many people last week, I watched the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold with profound dismay and anger while fighting a sense of despair over the intractable nature of American racism. We all knew it was coming, but that didn’t soften the blow.
On the social media, one might also have predicted the outpouring of callousness and hate toward Michael Brown and those protesting the Grand Jury verdict, but it made it no less loathsome. Even the subsequent torching of Michael Brown’s family church was not a shock, just eerily resonant.
There have been many eloquent responses to the great injustice that was the Wilson verdict last week, and I will not try to address the specifics of the case here. Instead, I offer a few observations from the longer view informed by the history of racism and exploitation in the West.
In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness we are taken on a journey into the core of the European colonial enterprise. And while the naïve reader may expect an adventure in the “savage” world of Africa, what one quickly discovers is that it is the “hollow men” of Europe bent on the ruthless exploitation of the land and the people who are the real savages, whose moral emptiness and desire to “exterminate the brutes” is the actual horror.
Decades later Chinua Achebe noted of Conrad’s anti-imperialist classic that, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality . . . Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.”
The point, suffice to say, is that it’s hard for many of us to look in the mirror.
In the wake of the Wilson verdict last week I find myself thinking both of the Heart of European-American Darkness and the emptiness of even the champions of racial “progress” whose vapid proclamations about “healing” and “productive responses” only make one feel all the more hopeless. We have been here before, so many times.
Coincidentally, one of the last classes I taught in my labor history course before the Thanksgiving break was on the overlapping goals of the labor and civil rights movements in the sixties with a special focus on Martin Luther King Jr.’s fateful visit to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers who were fighting not just for a contract but to have their full humanity recognized. Hence their signs–“I am a Man.”
To set up that discussion, I read the class a section from one of King’s last speeches where he points to the need to question the whole society, “the edifice which produces beggars,” and notes that:
[Q]uestioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated . . . A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
And indeed, that is the great problem that the pathetic Wilson verdict and the subsequent tone-deaf response of many whites, from right to left, exposes. We are not dealing with just one case or an isolated incident here, but with an event that runs our fingers down the jagged grain of our country’s long history of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism which blunts both our moral vision and our ability to deal with problems here at home.
To put it plainly, one can only justify the killing of Michael Brown if one is able to “thingify” him and so many others like him.
To follow King’s logic, it is this objectification of human beings that is the root of our history of racist violence, economic exploitation, and war.
One has to dehumanize people to ignore and/or tolerate a fundamentally racist prison-industrial complex that disproportionately ruins the lives of young men and women of color and allows police to operate in poor communities like an occupying army. In effect, those in prison and on the streets become disposable people.
You can only justify our historic level of economic inequality if you are able to dehumanize the losers in an unjust system that benefits the elite at the expense of the less fortunate. Those left behind are disposable people.
Finally, you can only justify murder by drones and endless wars fought by somebody else’s kid if you can manage to “thingify” the collateral damage that will ensue at home and abroad. The body counts are comprised of disposable people, mostly of color, somewhere else. They are just another sound bite on the news at best.
All of these problems are tied together and, as the wave of white rage and the both unapologetic and unconscious racism that has ensued since the Wilson verdict show, they are inextricably linked in America’s heart of darkness, which is made exponentially worse because most white Americans, as Achebe says of Conrad, cannot see it clearly even if they know something is wrong.
The problem is not a problem with the Wilson verdict but with the society that made it possible. Ferguson is not an aberration; it is a lightening flash that illuminates a greater darkness.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the way the state of Missouri treats Ferguson’s children. As Diane Ravitch noted in “This Was Michael Brown’s High School”:
Michael’s graduation picture was taken in March 2014. Why so far ahead of the graduation date? The high school had only two graduation gowns, and they had to be shared by the entire class. Mark Sumner tells the story of Michael Brown’s high school on The Daily Kos, and it is heartbreaking.
“The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.
“What kind of American school would have to share robes across the entire senior class?
“The kind that’s been the subject of a lot of attention from the state board of education.
“This district was created by merging two of the poorest, most heavily minority districts around St. Louis—Normandy and Wellston. The poverty rate for families sending their kids to Normandy Schools was 92 percent. At Wellston School District, the poverty rate was 98 percent. Every single student in the Wellston district was African American.”
And out of this systemically racist and classist educational system, the Michael Browns of the world are ushered onto the streets to meet the likes of Officer Wilson who see them as demons full of menace and superhuman strength and a larger America where far too many people find it acceptable to see them shot to death with no consequences. Indeed, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, a disturbing number of us still find that the acceptable answer is to “exterminate the brutes.”
They are disposable people.
bob dorn says
If we (most of us white) do nothing racism won’t go away. Action takes more
courage than a grave shaking of the head and a turning away from the news
as another governor or local prosecutor defends the practice of shooting to
kill, standing one’s ground, and failing to indict.
If we do take real action against racism we stand to get our asses handed to us.
Real courage comes from recognizing we (most of us black) can die, even tomorrow,
for being free and living honestly. That woman the CHP officer pummeled in the
video, Trayvon Martin, the Florida kids parked next to the fool who objected to
their car stereo, the 12-year-old Cleveland kid who’d made the grave mistake of removing the orange dot… they all probably knew they might die at the hands of
But they were living their lives in public, and with courage.
We’re all going to be required to have a similar courage soon enough. Let’s
all hope we can stand up and face down a violent, unreasoning, even delusional,
white culture that has been mainstreamed as patriotism.
It can survive only if we do nothing.
John Lawrence says
The problem goes way beyond police violence into a general societal dysfunction and prediliction for violence as exemplified by the huge number of guns per person, violent TV shows, video games and movies. Violence is part and parcel of this society. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”
Trayvon Martin and those kids with their stereo jacked up were not killed by police but by average Americans with guns at the ready. And American society makes sure that Americans are familiar with the operation of these killing machines by sending many off to fight wars and giving them basic training in how to kill with a gun. These situations are on the uprise and will continue to happen on a daily basis until they become even too prosaic for the media to cover. Ho. Hum. Another day, another mass killing.
An emphasis on eliminating poverty, providing programs which exalt peaceful solutions to conflicts, ending war and doing away with the taste for violent cultural “entertainment” will be the only things that will change the direction this society is going.
bob dorn says
We’re making the same point, aren’t we? Death is the end product of
the culture we’re living in?
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
Kids sharing a prop cap-and-gown for high school graduation photos is not as troubling
to me as the consolidation of two poor St. Louis County high school districts into one.
What good could have come from that ? What were they thinking? What were they teaching? What kind of vocational direction and college counseling were those kids getting? How big were their classes? Who was reaching out after 3 p.m. and on the weekends to those students to remind them they were valued, had lovable human qualities and futures beyond kicking back with friends, playing video games, doing beer and weed?
James Baldwin had it right — and he moved to France permanently to make a better life, one where he could breathe and be fully himself. Our schools could make a difference in the lives of our Trayvons and Michaels — if our schools were different.
Lori Saldaña says
Thank you for the well written and troubling description of the systemic problems we face in 2 core public systems that were designed to improve the quality of people’s lives and provide “equal justice under the law”: public education and public courts.
Increasingly both are being privatized. In both, people of color face discrimination. In schools and courts they are often punished more severely and at rates that are disproportionate to their population numbers.
In our own San Diego criminal justice system they are likewise disproportionately more likely to be placed in the system at an early age. Equally troubling is a lack of prosecution when violent crimes are committed AGAINST young black men.
Here are articles related to a violent incident in 2009, including an update published last year in East County Magazine. I worked with the families, but we were not able to get justice for these young men who were so brutally attacked. They were denied victim services support to help pay medical bills and replace the vehicle that was destroyed.
I believe they were denied these services because that would have acknowledged the “victim” status of the young men and their families, potentially highlighting the DAs failure to properly investigate and prosecute anyone for this horrific assault.
Geoff Downes says
We’ll put, Jim. The horror is, well, horrifying. No one is free until we all are free.