Editor's Weekly: The grief and gift of Ferguson

Aug 6, 2015

One year after Michael Brown’s death, St. Louisans are yearning for resolution. Truth is we’re nowhere close to achieving it. We can’t even be sure we’re on the right track. And yet, the anger and pain that we’ve experienced since last August have brought us to a new place. Call it the end of the beginning.

In the beginning -- before last Aug. 9 -- whites and African Americans lived in separate realities. That’s still true, of course – in Ferguson, in our region and across the nation. But after a year of crisis, discovery and reflection, only those who wish to remain willfully oblivious would dare to deny that this division exists. Recognizing reality may seem like a meager achievement, but it’s essential to achieving anything else.

Protesters at the St. Louis County Council last fall.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

In the beginning, public discussions about racism usually devolved into arguments over individuals or incidents. Should they be labeled racist -- or, conversely, denounced as “playing the race card”? But Ferguson is about more than Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Their confrontation was the spark that set off an explosion, but it had been building for generations.

Dig deep, as the Justice Department did in its investigations, and you’ll see that some widely circulated “facts” about that confrontation were false – a reminder of the need to pursue truth wherever it leads.

You’ll also see distressing patterns of discrimination and racial disparity in Ferguson and beyond. African Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, to go to jail and to suffer the consequences of municipal penalties that start small but can ruin lives. African Americans are less likely than whites to attend good schools, find well-paying jobs and live long, healthy lives.

The legacy of slavery and segregation continues decades after discrimination was outlawed. Systemic racism persists even though we as individuals abhor it. After this year, we’re closer to understanding how the playing field is still tilted.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, August 2014.
Credit Bill Greenblatt, UPI

In the beginning, most political leaders didn’t step up to address the race and class divisions that bedevil our region except to occasionally play on them for personal advantage. There’s still a vacuum of leadership that could swallow our chance for progress -- and no guarantee that anyone will carry out whatever recommendations the Ferguson Commission makes.

But this year has shown that change happens on multiple levels -- top down through policies and programs; bottom-up through hearts and minds. While top-down leadership has been minimal, hearts and minds are moving. You can hear it in many of the voices featured this week in St. Louis Public Radio’s special Ferguson coverage. These individuals can’t immediately change the world, but they’re challenging the collective complacency that often blocks progress for our region.

Michael Brown's mother, Leslie McSpadden (center) hears that Darren Wilson will not be indicted.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

In this tumultuous year, Ferguson has brought grief – to Michael Brown’s family, to supporters of racial justice, to Ferguson residents whose community has been shaken, to St. Louisans whose regional reputation has plummeted, to those who want order and wish the turmoil would end.

But Ferguson has also been in its way a rare gift – the chance to see our community with fresh eyes, to open our hearts to new perspectives and to approach our problems with better thinking. A momentous 12 months is ending. But we are only at the end of the beginning.