Many St. Louisans followed the news closely this week as unrest, issues and inevitable comparisons to Ferguson streamed from Baltimore. For a moment, it looked as though the country might stop treating Ferguson as a pariah and focus more on the nation's widespread systemic problems related to race.
But so far, it’s not turning out to be that moment.
An NPR headline Wednesday put it this way: “Baltimore Is Not Ferguson. Here’s What It Really Is.” The story recounted how Baltimore residents turned out to clean up the streets, offer food to strangers and practice the city’s signature friendliness. Unlike Ferguson, Baltimore’s mayor and police chief are African Americans, the story noted, and many residents say the tensions there are about class, not race.
Of course, this same spirit of resilience surfaced in Ferguson, as did cross-racial efforts to confront problems and comfort one another. But I suspect that’s not the dominant impression the rest of the country carries of Ferguson or of the St. Louis region.
Judging by references that surfaced again this week, we’re widely regarded as an aberration and a relic from an era of egregious individual and official racism. We're seen as the new Selma, as Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan has said.
Indeed, the Justice Department found plenty of egregiously offensive behavior in Ferguson -- emails, for example, and police and court practices. Those problems must be addressed. But if people think removing a few Ferguson officials will solve the problems that erupted there, then they’ve missed the most important lesson the country can take from Ferguson's ordeal.
Ferguson is not a bad community ruined by racist villains. Ferguson is a place where many citizens have been working for years to build a good community -- and terrible things happened anyway. The lesson lies in understanding that any community is part of a larger pattern of racial disparities -- odds, assumptions and obstacles that burden African Americans wherever they live.
In some ways, Ferguson is not Baltimore -- or Kirkwood, where I live, or the place you call home. But in all of those places, African Americans are less likely than whites to graduate from high school and college, find good jobs and live long, healthy lives; they are more likely to be stopped or injured by police and to go to jail. This is the legacy of an overtly racist culture and legal system that prevailed in America for centuries.
If you are white and economically secure, as I am, you can choose to ignore this reality. But you can’t avoid reckoning with reality when frustrations erupt -- as they will until we come to grips our legacy and open more paths of opportunity.
Recently, the Ferguson Commission decided to weigh the recommendations it's considering by asking three questions:
- Who does this particular policy benefit?
- Does it impact different racial groups unequally?
- Which inequities are not being addressed as part of the policy?
Those would be good questions for all of us to ask as we grapple with with the raw emotions and unresolved problems that Baltimore raised again this week.