Two recent deaths – the police killing of Mansur Ball-Bey and the incomprehensible shooting of 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden – felt like giant steps backward for a region already plagued by violence and mistrust. This week, St. Louisans took three small but significant steps forward, beginning to address the underlying problems that breed despair.
You can’t root out problems unless you find their roots. For many of the issues St. Louisans now face, those roots lie in systemic racism. Don’t know what that is or doubt that it exists? Please resist the impulse to tune out. The words may sound heavy – and to many white ears, incorrect. But the idea is hard to deny and important to comprehend if you actually want to solve problems.
Systemic racism is the ripple effect of past laws and culture that enforced slavery and discrimination. You can see these ripples in the devastating pattern of racial disparities that persist across the nation and especially here -- in housing, wealth, jobs, schools, courts, jails and more. The playing field remains tilted long after the rules of the game changed.
For most African Americans, this pervasive injustice is all too obvious. It brewed the anger that erupted last year, sparked by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. It drove the protest that demanded change and challenged whites who were blind to the patterns around them.
But protest alone doesn’t solve problems. Even as protests have continued, a parallel debate has played out over how and what to change. Like the protests, this debate has been a free-for-all -- often disjointed, sometimes raucous and unusually public.
Recently, for example, critics attacked activist DeRay Mckesson on Twitter for taking what they considered to be too prominent a leadership role. At the same time, author and journalist Barbara Reynolds called on young activists to provide more disciplined leadership, in the style of the civil rights sages. Activists themselves say they’re building a new kind of movement -- decentralized, digitally based and driven toward fresh approaches.
The concrete steps that emerged this week didn’t resolve these conflicts. But they did indicate that many eyes are beginning to focus on systemic issues -- to analyze problems and identify solutions:
- Municipal court officials in Ferguson and elsewhere announced forgiveness of old warrants and other changes intended to restore trust between citizens and their courts. Critics say the moves don’t go far enough, but acknowledge they’re a start.
- A state law, Senate Bill 5, kicked in. It limits traffic ticket revenue as a source of municipal income and will eventually force many cities to upgrade or abolish their police forces. Ironically, the new rules may eventually lead to dissolution of several north St. Louis County municipalities where black officials are in charge.
- Protesters launched Campaign Zero, a website that lays out concrete reform proposals in several areas and evaluates presidential candidates. The effort could help harness the diffuse energy of the protest movement to influence policy changes.
Soon, other voices will weigh in on systemic change. Most notably, the Ferguson Commission’s report is due in less than a month.
Last week, Ball-Bey's death in St. Louis prompted new protests. It also raised systemic questions. How can police work effectively in neighborhoods where crime is high and trust in police is low? Are St. Louis police as progressive as they claim to be in investigating police shootings and handling protests? How can violence be reduced?
Recent vigils mourned Jamyla Bolden, shot to death in her home while doing homework. Her death brings new urgency to another systemic question: How can we reduce crime and violence that disproportionately afflict African Americans and that are appalling to all?