Since Monday there has been a lot of violence and talk. Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fatally shot unarmed black youth Michael Brown, was not indicted by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. An indictment, which is effectively an order to bring criminal charges to someone, occurs in about 90 per cent of these cases in the United States. The decision, which was by all accounts hyped up and to some degree anticipated with much pessimism, tore across America in a flash. No charges for Wilson and a nation divided.
What has followed has been predictable but all the while still quite shocking. Protests have erupted around the country as well as in some localised areas globally. In the midst of these torrid demonstrations, violence has broken out with rioting and the predictable looting and smashing of store windows. In the midst of this action, white people have taken to television and social media to tell the rest of America to stop talking about racism.
Despite the fact that we often think of racism as a part of the distant past: slavery, apartheid, the holocaust, or residential schools, the reality is that racism frames all social relationships in modern America and around the world. Attempts to deny the power of race are deeply problematic. This means on a macro level, as well as in particular cases, such as the shooting of Michael Brown.
Racism exists in the media, on social networking sties, in law enforcement, in the business world, in education, and in the legal system. Racism is pervasive and multifaceted. It's also ingrained in American culture, what we call institutional racism. Institutional racism generally means that even those who are racially marginalised hold racist attitudes towards various others in order to prop up the dominant group (think of the film Crash). This is similarly expressed in sexism when women call each other bitches or sluts. They have internalised the dominant messages about hierarchy and they are acting them out. It is the privilege of the dominant class, according to Antonio Gramsci, to have their ideas and values taken on by various others. This is otherwise known as hegemony.
There are quite a few ways in which we can observe institutional racism in the west. Here are some categories to reflect on.
The first is xenophobia. I just wrote about this last week, but it comes down to a fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding of the "other". These sentiments can apply to race or any category of "other" that is subordinate to a dominant cultural group. Sometimes it's assumptive, expecting a voice over the phone to be white, for example. Sometimes it's a reaction, like crossing to the other side of the street if you see a young black male. Sadly, this sometimes includes taking the side of the white authority when a young black man is killed, seemingly with little or no justification. Our ideas of otherness come from years of exposure to generally xenophobic ideas and institutions. Think, for example, of the image of Michael Brown that was shared by the media after he was killed. He was presented in a way that othered him, as a young black male, against a white victim of crime. This played out brilliantly on twitter with a photo campaign. See the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
This points to a related phenomenon - differential treatment. A good example of this is to think about who can be seen challenging the authority of the government. Take for example the demonstrations in Ferguson compared with renegade Cliven Bundy. Or the right to protest or participate in a riot: the burning of police cars was seen by many in America as an act of terrorism, but what about those who take to the streets after sporting events, such as the Vancouver riots in 2011. Even the questoin of who can openly hold a gun is incediary. It's from an idea that democracy is there to serve the interests of the dominant cultural group. Anyone else seen challenging it's legitimacy should be put back in their place. There's a song on the radio currently that says we're slamming the doors of democracy on those who are not the same.
Another element is fear. Many people, particularly white, try to imagine themselves in the situation and sympathise with the white person was "just doing their job" or "serving". We don't have to look back very far to see another unfortunate example, the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012. This shooting also evidences institutional racism because it was a hispanic man shooting a black man. Fear, propogated by racist propaganda, has a wide impact.
The last part I'd like to share is where we started: denying the existance of racism. This, in my view, is particulalry egregious because it shuts down anything progressive from happening. This takes many forms, most notably with things like saying that we've come a long way as a society or that racism goes both ways. These tactics are successful at derailing the types of progressive conversations that need to be happening in order to combat racism and other forms of marginalisation.
With all of these elements in mind, consider how Michael Brown was portrayed in the media since the event occured this summer. Now reflect on how Darren Wilson has been characterised. It doesn't take much googling to come up with some disturbing results, but I encourage you to try this as an exercise.
It can be difficult to think about next steps when we are so mired in current frustrations, but we must keep an eye out for what can be done. It won't be easy, but perserverence, hope, and compassion are really the only ways that we can transcend the violence and division. I will be watching this keenly as it continues to unfold.