Two unavoidable questions face St. Louisans now that the Ferguson Commission has made its report: What will change and who will change it? But something fundamental has changed already. Speaking as representatives of our region, the commission members declared – officially, directly and publicly: “We have not moved beyond race.”
You may not agree. You may think the Ferguson Commission has no right to speak for you. You may point out, correctly, that acknowledging the truth doesn’t by itself change reality.
But you need to recognize that the commission’s careful, forceful reasoning has pushed us all across a threshold. Responsible citizens can no longer deny or ignore issues of race. The prevailing apathy that has hobbled the region’s progress for years is no longer respectable.
Forward Through Ferguson is the report’s resonant title. We can’t go back to the old normal; it was both unjust and counterproductive. We can’t go forward without recognizing that African Americans face entrenched disadvantages – documented beyond a doubt in the report’s statistics and personal stories.
We must recognize that race-related problems, while they directly afflict minorities, involve and affect us all. Here’s how the commission explains it:
“We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist. We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist.
“What we are pointing out is that the data suggest, time and again, that our institutions and existing systems are not equal, and that this has racial repercussions. Black people in the region feel those repercussions when it comes to law enforcement, the justice system, housing, health, education and income.”
The report adds: “Too many of the issues examined here have been addressed in isolation for too long.”
No one can accurately predict what will change, but the commission has made about four dozen priority recommendations about what should. You can find them – and rank them – in a tool St. Louis Public Radio’s Brent Jones built. It also lets you see how your choices stack up against rankings by others. Somehow, the exercise makes the recommendations easier to comprehend, and it's one way to feed your thinking into ongoing discussion of the report.
For each recommendation, the report specifies who has the power to bring about change. Less clear is who will have the patience and persistence to insist on change. The commission itself will disappear at the end of the year. It may designate a successor group and create a structure to track what happens. But the very breadth and depth of the issues mean progress will require work on many fronts for many years.
When Michael Brown died at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, our region became ground zero for a national debate about race. Many have said that the racial divide here is especially stark, that the patterns of disparity and discrimination are especially entrenched.
Yet as a lifelong St. Louisan, I know also that people here can be especially committed and caring. Accepting the truth from the Ferguson Commission -- rather than resisting it -- will help us unlock the reservoir of goodwill and good sense that we need to solve our problems.
Please join us Monday at 7 p.m. to talk about the report in person. St. Louis Public Radio will return to Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson for a discussion led by St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. Guests will include Wellspring pastor Willis Johnson, commission member and activist Rasheen Aldridge, political analyst Terry Jones, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III and commission member and police officer Byron Watson. If you can’t make it, catch the broadcast Tuesday and Wednesday at noon and 10 p.m. on 90.7 FM.