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The Ferguson Commission Won't Bring Social Change – Black Lives Matter Will

The Ferguson Commission Won't Bring Social Change – Black Lives Matter Will
Wed, 9/16/2015 - by Steven W. Thrasher
This article originally appeared on The Guardian

It’s going to get a lot harder to pretend that the suffering in Ferguson, Michael Brown’s death and the explosive reaction after his shooting weren’t all about race now that the Ferguson Commission has bluntly written: “make no mistake: this is about race.”

The commission, which on Monday released its nearly 200 page report Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Towards Racial Equity, can’t easily be written off. It was organized by Governor Jay Nixon, who was widely criticized for his handling of Ferguson in the summer and fall of 2014. It includes high profile voices from the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Brittany Packnett, as well as clergy, academics and even Sergeant Kevin Ahlbrand, president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police.

The commission’s assessments about structural racism in and around St. Louis are direct and to the point. The commission acknowledged its own limitations, writing: “we do not know for certain if these calls to action are the answer. We can’t.” They wrote that, historically, commissions after riots have focused on “economic revitalization to the exclusion of social issues, such as racial tension, segregation and discrimination”; this whitewashed over racism in an expedient, cowardly way.

Citing political scientist Lindsey Lupo, the Ferguson Commission scolds previous commissions for "arguing that our society has moved beyond race, thus the problems must be purely economic. But race remains at the root of the violence, as evidenced by its very inception with every riot studied here being the result of white law enforcement harming a black civilian.”

It doesn’t get more blunt than that: no “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” No pretending cops’ lives have been more in danger this past year when, in fact, police deaths are unusually low.

The report drives home that St. Louis has “not moved beyond race,” that “racial inequity in our region is not the same as individual racism,” that “in the St. Louis region, life expectancy differs by nearly 40 years depending on zip code.” (White folks in the whitest suburbs live to an average age of about 91, while the black folks in the blackest suburbs closer to the city center live to about 56.)

This is a document of a government-convened commission acknowledging that no one need “act racist” in order for racism to do its thing. As President Obama put it earlier this year, racism is “not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

This is a report which says: “institutions or existing systems” need not “intend to be racist” in order to lead us into, as Ruth Gilmore Wilson puts it, the land of “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

The reason why black folks die younger in Ferguson is not just because of cops like Darren Wilson, but because of a systematic, interlocking network of economic violence and environmental poisoning; quite effectively, this network makes sure that those with darker skin spend less time on this earth.

We Americans like to focus on American individualism, and the mythology that everyone begins life with a blank slate with which they can make of themselves what they choose. It’s a lie, but calling out the lie is hard. In plain language, this report calls out the lie. “St. Louis is the fifth most racially segregated of 50 large metro areas in the United States,” the report says, but it isn’t unusual – especially in how it says that the “law says all citizens are equal,” while “the data says not everyone is treated that way.”

It is rare for any text coming from any even quasi-governmental body to say this aloud. But will it lead to any actual change?

The report’s weakest aspects are that, despite its clear-eyed nature, it still promotes “positive change” with catchy, optimistic phrases and a happy hashtag (#STLFwdThru). Like its predecessors, it might just be used as a pressure valve to contain further eruptions of chaos, which might more radically foment social change.

But culture precedes policy, not the other way around, as I’ve been discussing a lot lately with writer Jeff Chang and artist Favianna Rodriguez. A commission is much more likely to ride out the tail of a social change wave, not lead it.

And perhaps, if we’re lucky, that is what we are seeing here: clearer language about racism because the commission itself has been shaped by a cultural shift. Black Lives Matter wasn’t started by a government commission. It’s not a working group of the Democratic Party. Black Lives Matter is having a cultural moment, infecting art and music and, yes, even infiltrating the stodgy fields of presidential politics and gubernatorial commissions.

The Ferguson Commission should not be put on a pedestal with an unrealistic expectation that it alone will instigate change. But, if read as evidence of social change that is already taking place, then what it is saying is indeed the marker of something big occurring.

Originally published by The Guardian

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