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.