Today we talked about the rioting in Ferguson last night. For background, this NY Times article details the events of the shooting, the grand jury and the ensuing riot. Instead of dwelling on the specifics of this particular case, I tried to explain the larger reasons behind the riot. I was using a sociological imagination to understand what is happening. The first point I want to make is how you will not see a detailed and thoughtful exploration of this in the news because the news is not really news in the sense that it is information that explains things to viewers and makes them more educated on the subject. Instead, the news tells a compact mini story/drama that is a spectacle, literally. It is something to captivate your attention but not make you think.
First, the riot is really random violence. Random violence happens in many cases within society and often the violence is by white perpetrators. However, when the actions are committed by a majority group such as white you rarely hear the mention of "white" in the description of the assailant. Here are some examples of white riots and here are examples of white random violence. And, from Michael Kimmel, an important sociologist who studies violence, "It's also worth discussing why so many of these young mass murderers are white." So, race has nothing to do with random violence in general. Instead, try to see random violence as a manifestation of violent masculinity (see this post of mine for more on that). Our culture says that the way to be masculine is to be violent and tough. So, if someone feels disrespected or not taken seriously, the way to earn respect and prove that you should be taken seriously is through violence. Furthermore, violence is one of the few approved emotions for men to show and still be considered manly.
To emphasize the violence and its connection, think about the police use of force in this incident. It was a demonstration of power. And so is the massive show of military style force that is showing up not only at the events in Ferguson but across America. And we see this with our federal government as well which spends a massive amount on military force and is constantly fighting around the globe. We also see the use of violence in movies, sports, and video games all as an example of respect and a measure of one's manhood and being taken seriously. Understanding this dynamic helps us understand where seemingly random violence comes from.
Why random violence in Ferguson?
The random violence I discussed above shows up when people feel powerless and not taken seriously. In this case, institutional racism has left individuals feeling powerless, frustrated and not taken seriously. The first way this shows up is in the makeup of government officials, police officers and others in power. From The Guardian, "Ferguson’s population is 67% black, but 50 of Jackson’s 53 police officers – 94% – are white." And from an article in The Nation:
The racial disparities that define Ferguson are indeed shocking. More than two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, but almost all of the officials and police officers are white: the mayor and the police chief, five of six city council members, all but one of the members of the school board, fifty of fifty-three police officers....Only 10 percent of the New York Police Department’s recruits in 2013 were black. The whiteness of Ferguson’s political leadership is a national trait, too. Since Reconstruction, only four states have elected black senators: Illinois, Massachusetts, South Carolina and New Jersey. Voters in twenty-five states still have never elected a black representative to the House.The disparity of racial leadership is combined with a disparity in the criminal justice system. Arrests, prosecution and imprisonment are all slanted against black and Hispanic people.
From The Nation:
In 2013, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people. The skewed numbers don’t correspond at all to the levels of crime. While one in three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, only one in five blacks had contraband. …But is Ferguson really exceptional? …. The unequal application of the force of the law is also well documented across the country. Five times as many whites use illegal drugs as black Americans, and yet black people are sent to prison on drug charges at ten times the rate of whites. And disparity is evident in other police forces; for example, only 10 percent of the New York Police Department’s recruits in 2013 were black.This disparity is true throughout the criminal justice system in the United States. See more about the racially biased war on drugs here(drug use and arrest rates) and here (mass incarceration).
The most difficult way that racism manifests itself is in the police use of force. Police have a very difficult job to do and it is inherently dangerous. However, they also represent the government, an official institution, that has armed them and authorized them to use force. So when the use of force is seen to be racially charged and excessive it puts the community at odds with the police department and the government. Let me explain though that I do not think that racist people sign up to be cops en masse. Instead there is implicit bias because we live in a society that teaches everyone (including minorities) to be weary of black men. Here is an example of how the bias plays out, cross posted from the sociologytoolbox (racial profiling):
Sadly, the racism shows up nearly daily for people of minority racial status who are living in impoverished segregated neighborhoods. TRIGGER WARNING - SOME OF THE VIDEO BELOW HERE ARE VIOLENT AND DISTURBING FOOTAGE OF PEOPLE BEING SHOT.
- Recently, plain clothes NYC police officers did not recognize out-of-uniform, off-duty (but sitting in a department-issued SUV with an ID around his neck) three-star police chief, Douglas Zeigler. He is African American. Clearly, in the officers’ minds, his image fit closer to that of a criminal than their superior. Not even his departmental ID could alter the white officers’ belief that this 60 year-old black male was a trouble maker and not their commanding officer. They didn’t believe the ID was credible. His race trumped other credentials. Read more here.
- This one first came to my attention via the blog, Sociological Imagination. New York city is home to one of the most aggressive “stop and frisk” programs that encourages/requires police officers to, well it’s all in the name, stop and frisk people on the streets. Again, one’s race matters, as it seems to determine if you in fact get stopped and frisked – if you appear “suspicious”. A 2012 report states that 84% of the 1.6 million stopped in 2010-12 were African Americans and Latinos. More data is available here. This video recaptures one young person’s experience and some testimony from officers themselves. A federal judge recently declared the implementation of this program unconstitutional and may require police officers to wear cameras to document their actions. Mayor Bloomberg argues that it has made the city safer (trumping any concerns of the racial profiling).
- I always use this next video in class, as it generates some real gasps (a key indicator of learning) among students. While not a scientifically controlled experiment (that fact should be used as another teachable moment in class), ABC news creates a situation in a public park where different individuals attempt to steal a locked bike – a white male, a black male, and a white female. The white male is inquisitively questioned by passers-by but only one bothers to do anything beyond look completely perplexed. Take the same scene, same bike, location, and dress, but insert a young black male and within SECONDS he is confronted by people in the park, in fact a crowd gathers determined to take action. “Is that your bike?” The attractive white female actually gets assistance in cutting the lock, although the sample selection process could likely be skewed by video editing.
- My last example for this post is the highly publicized case of police treatment of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. This case, similar to Chief Zeigler’s experience, shows that status is often not enough to overcome race. A Harvard professor, Gates had trouble getting into his own home near Harvard Square in the early afternoon when the lock became jammed. The police arrived to investigate a reported attempted break-in. One of his neighbors and the subsequently responding police assumed he was a burglar, not a frustrated homeowner. By this time Gates was already in HIS home and was able to show officers his drivers license and Harvard ID. He was still booked for disorderly conduct. President Obama commented on the event and eventually invited the arresting officer and Dr. Gates to the White House to talk over a beer. While not harrassed by the police, Obama was once mistaken as a waiter at a party when he was actually a state senator.Race continues to matter as police officers and the general population continue to profile non-whites as more suspicious and lower status than whites. If you are white, like myself, you may not observe this occurring to others and subsequently not be aware of the additional surveillance and racial profiling that non-whites are subject too, even if they are police chiefs, Harvard professors, or state legislators. These vivid examples help us understand how racial profiling continues and we can’t rely on our individual observations or experience to make conclusions about racial groups’ collective experience in our society.This is also a good case for teaching how structure is reflected in individual action. Here we see a larger, socially-constructed racial system embedding cognitive categories in individuals’ minds, over ridding other markers of status and driving assumptions of suspicion.
Just 10 days after Michael Brown was shot to death, this happened in nearby St Louis. The police were called because this man stole two soft drinks from a convenience store. The police showed up and within 20 seconds the police had shot him 12 times. Then they proceeded to handcuff the lifeless body with hands behind his back.
Here is another incident from South Carolina where an officer tells a man to get his driver's license and when the man reaches into his car to get it, the officer shoots him. The man then asks, "why did you shoot me?"
Here is a Washington Post article about similar situations.
Here is a Huffington Post article also about situations like this.
This site from Occupy.com claims that a black man is killed every 28 hours by police.
I hope students see that the issue is much more complex than simply "those people were upset so they rioted". The connection between race, poverty and the criminal justice is complex and it is made even moreso when adding our cultural construction of violent masculinity. But keep in mind that most of us NEVER have to live at the intersection of poverty, minority status and violence. But those in Ferguson and similar communities do live that out on a daily basis, their whole lives. With that perspective, it should help you understand why there is outrage.
Here are sociological resources for teaching the Ferguson events. Here is a website with lesson plans and articles. And here is John Oliver's take which is basically what I said above but funnier and more entertaining: