A New York Times editorial from last week, "The Problem Is Bigger Than Ferguson," still bothers me.
Since August, the flaws of Ferguson — and the St. Louis region — have been in the national spotlight. At last, the headline seemed to recognize that our home is not the only one plagued by racial issues. That would have been a welcome message coming from the nation’s newspaper of record, writing from the city where Eric Garner’s death raised many of the same questions that Michael Brown’s death did here.
But soul-searching in New York or nationally was not what the Times had in mind. Turns out “bigger than Ferguson” meant St. Louis County. The editorial cited the Justice Department report and noted that “cleaning up that one town won’t necessarily help its residents if they continue to be ensnared in the deplorable justice systems operating elsewhere in St. Louis County.”
That’s true, of course — as far as it goes. But there’s a larger truth. Years after legalized discrimination ended, racial disparities still afflict most aspects of life. Here and elsewhere, black people and white people live with very different statistical odds, expectations and experiences — with schools, jobs, police, courts, health and life expectancy itself.
In St. Louis, our reactions to this truth have varied wildly — from relief that racial problems are being exposed to denial that they exist. Amid pain and hope, anger and acceptance, we’re just beginning to sort out what to do.
Many people want to return to “normal.” That frustration came through in an email this week from an angry St. Louis County couple:
“Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it. Have I made myself clear? We are sick and tired of hearing that **** about Ferguson, Ferguson Ferguson."
At first, this attitude seemed the opposite of the Times editorial. The Times puts the onus on St. Louis County residents to solve problems; the St. Louis County couple doesn't want to hear about them. But in another sense, the attitudes are identical. Both demonstrate how difficult it can be to see problems close to home.
Or to understand how they touch us all. African Americans bear the brunt of racial disparities, but the diminished prospects of one group ultimately limit the collective potential of all — in a community, a region and a nation.
Those who regard Ferguson as someone else’s problem are missing the most important lesson we can learn from the pain of the last few months. Bad things can happen even in communities where much good work is taking place. Just visit Ferguson and you’ll see. It’s not the seething slum many first-time visitors expect, but the product of citizens’ efforts over many years to build a vibrant, inclusive community.
Ferguson exploded not because it was an aberration but because it was part of a larger pattern of issues. The problem IS bigger than Ferguson. And that message needs to hit home everywhere.