Ferguson: The Spectacle vs. the Terror of the Mundane

“Your book is so timely given what is happening in Missouri.”

Several people have emailed me in the last few days with messages like this one in reference to Hope Sings, So Beautiful. There is truth in it, but not a truth that brings consolation. How could it? There is no comfort for an author in the grim satisfaction of “I told you so” when it comes to the stewing cauldron of race relations in our country.

The fact is, I’ve found myself deeply hesitant to write or speak about the terrible events still unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting death by police. The spectacle of the thing played out over TV airwaves and social media has left me reticent to contribute another version of “outrage again” from my own corner of the insulated white liberal universe. I’m not there. My kids haven’t been the objects of police brutality – not yet, in any case.

As the adoptive white father of two very black Haitian children, it is true that I’m not entirely insulated from the troubling social realities represented by Ferguson. The day will come when me and my wife will have to sit down with our son and try to make him understand the “Black Male Code,” the rules of how to act in public and in the presence of white authority figures–above all, how to act when pulled over or stopped while out for a drive or walk by the police, or some other self-appointed deputy of justice. As I wrote in Hope Sings:

The murder of Trayvon Martin intensified the already-unhappy awareness that our son Henry, in eight or ten short years, will appear to some like just another “suspicious-looking” black teenager, and may be targeted as such. How I will manage to communicate this news to him remains a question beyond my present capacity to answer.

This is what troubles me most about Ferguson. Not the spectacle of a militarized police force firing gas bombs and rubber bullets into the crowd; not the embarrassing but inevitable images of shirtless, tattooed young black men hauling electronics and bottles of liquor through the shattered windows of a convenience store. What troubles me is the entrenched poverty and hopelessness of long-segregated neighborhoods; the well-lubed pipeline from failing public schools to inhumane and highly profitable private prisons; the everyday, institutionalized racial profiling that makes such eruptions of street protest and reactionary violence inevitable in cities across the US. It is the hidden structures of racism that make such painful conversations with our black and brown children necessary in the first place.

Ferguson.2To be clear, my wife and I have known this “terror of the mundane”* only gradually and from a relatively safe distance. Many African American parents live with it intimately every day. At least for a while, black as night though he may be, our Henry will be protected in ways other black children are not, insofar as he moves through the world inside the orbit of his parents’ white privilege. But neither our fierce love for him nor our social privilege will keep him safe forever.

At stake in Ferguson is the precariousness of empathy in America.* Whether or not we literally have our own “skin in the game,” are we able and willing to feel with the precarious situation of African Americans and other marginalized peoples in this country? To “feel with” and even to “suffer with” another person or group from the inside of their situation: to my mind this is the essence of what it means to be a true human being. And certainly what it means to be a Christian. “For whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters,” and all that stuff. But Jesus didn’t really mean that our “brothers and sisters” live in places like Ferguson, did he?

I want to conclude by confessing again my own poverty in the face of these difficult times. But it is precisely in our poverty, I believe, that grace comes to meet us. God walks with us when we walk with God into the places that most need our empathy, compassion, and efforts for justice. Without the grace of God (which finally is the grace of forgiveness) I fear we are doomed, black and white alike, to keep spinning wildly and self-destructively inside the closed circle of concern for myself only and “my own people.” To live inside that closed circle is not really living. It is survival, and nothing more. It is Hell, the kind of hell that projects itself outward in suspicion and rage toward others.

May God give us the courage and grace, like Jesus, to be fully human, to keep our hearts open and alive to one another. His spirit of hope and unexpected gifts of new life are waiting, ever waiting, to come alive in us.


*These reflections and key terms within it were inspired by sociologist Tamara Nopper and grassroots youth activist Mariame Kaba in their essay, “Itemizing Atrocity.” I’m grateful to them for helping me locate and give voice to my own feelings on a much-overlooked dimension of Ferguson.

Also powerful, from NPR’s StoryCorps: this very brief (3 minute) and poignant remembrance of an experience of racial profiling from Alex Landau, an African American man, and his white adoptive mother who raised him in the largely white, middle-class suburbs of Denver.

Update (8/24): “Black America and the Burden of the Perfect Victim,” Toure,’ in the Washington Post.

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