Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

This is 2014. Photo: Associated Press

On the one hand, this should be the shortest post ever: “Because I am human and American,  I care about human rights, our constitution, racism, and poverty.” Done. Hit publish and walk away.

On the other hand, a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backgrounds to me, don’t see it that way.

The last time I found myself completely unable to stop reading a news story, was when it felt really really personal. When I finally gave myself a news break, I felt relief and calm. This time, I turned off my computer on Friday evening and didn’t turn it back on until Sunday night. When I did, I felt guilty, because Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown, it’s not just about protesters or journalists who are being stopped from doing their job. It’s not just about Ferguson. It’s about the black kid who gets pulled over by the cops ten times a month. It’s about schools with just over 50 percent graduation rates. It’s about segregation in the year 2014. It’s about the criminal justice system in this country. It’s about black boys who are taught to never call the cops. It’s about systemic racism. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Read this. And this. And this.  And this).

And, because I’m white, I can turn off the news and I have the option to tune all of that out. I don’t live with that systemic racism, so when I turn off the news, I have the privilege of tuning it out. My friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, are not so lucky.

When I think about why this is the news story that I can’t stop reading about, I think about the West Wing‘s Toby Ziegler reaction to the shooting in Rosslyn:

Toby: Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen shootings before.

President Bartlet: It wasn’t a shooting, Toby, it was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes.

To head it off at the pass: yes. I know that the West Wing is not real. I know that in that fictional world, Charlie was shot at by white supremacists and that in the real world, it’s likely that Darren Wilson’s motives were not overtly racist.

Wilson may have shot in fear, but that fear probably has roots in the way our society portrays black men: as dangerous and disposable. Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but it drove to the surface a lot of anger about a lot of racial injustices. It exposes my country’s darker side, the demons that we have not conquered, the demons we haven’t even really tried to fight because it’s more comfortable to ignore them. 

Yes: “We.” This should be a problem for everyone.

Last week, a commenter on Jezebel said  something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t make this about race, so that everyone could be outraged.” But, you don’t have to be the victim to be outraged. Exercise empathy muscles. Be outraged because it’s unacceptable not because it could happen to you. Educate yourself. Learn that most protesters are not looters. Check your language. Are you making gross generalizations? Are you saying, “not to be racist” or “no offense, but…”? Ask yourself, how can I change myself and how can I change the system, no matter how small an impact. (Does anyone have an answer to the latter question? Let me know!)

In response to a piece from The Forward   “Why Jews Should Care About Ferguson”, someone on Facebook wrote.

“Would you be scared to open your shop there past 9pm? Now? Exactly, so cut it. You have no stake in the game. But those with shops over there do. So how can you belittle their concern for safety?”

Nobody in the thread or in the article had justified the looting. The idea that we somehow shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about the broad underlying injustice because we don’t know what it’s like to be store owners in Ferguson is even more mind-boggling than the idea that you should only be outraged if you are black. I have a stake in this game. We all should. 

I am outraged because as a Jew I believe that I cannot ignore the oppression of others just because things have gotten easier for my people and my family over the decades. We are asked to always remember that we were once slaves and to treat others accordingly.

I am outraged because I remember how uncomfortable it was to be told before a school field trip that any misbehavior in the museum would reflect badly on all Jews everywhere, and the way that information about Michael Brown has been handled by the police, by some parts of the media, and by the Internet reminds me that black boys and men carry a burden that is similar but many times heavier. (I don’t want to link to it, but google Michael Brown Marijuana and then think back to high school).

I am outraged because as a (former) journalist, I believe that the rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and redress of grievances should not be corralled and must be protected even, and especially, when protecting them calls into question structures of power, and the status quo. Even when its scary or difficult. I agree with the police who believe it is part of their job to protect these rights not with the police who believe it is their job  defend against them. I am outraged because I love this country and part of that love comes from being able to criticize its failings

I am outraged  because I agree with  former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper, who wrote, “In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.”

I am outraged because as a white person, I automatically benefit from systems, perceptions, and stereotypes that hurt others and I’m not OK with that.

I am outraged because as an American I want to live in a country that lives up to the values enshrined in the constitution.

I am outraged because I believe that everyone’s life is enriched when everyone has opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. I believe that the American Dream should not be reserved for those who do not have to overcome poverty, sub-par public services, or bigotry.

I am outraged because as a human I believe that skin color should not serve as a barrier for entry, that the poor should not be treated as less-than, that failing students should not be dismissed as net-losses.

I am outraged because as a human I understand that teenage deaths are tragedies, whatever the cause.

I am outraged because as a person, I believe that we could be doing better, and not trying makes me furious.

I am outraged because racism even in its most subtle forms should be considered outrageous. Full stop.

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18 thoughts on “Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

  1. Great post, Leora. I particularly love your reminder that “we were once slaves in Egypt” should prompt us to struggle against injustice everywhere. I’m also appalled to hear that commenters on Jezebel were trying to make this not about race so we can all be outraged. As you point out, it is about race and that’s why we should be outraged. Well done!

  2. You are a liberal cliche’. Your annoying, repetitive whine cited not one fact at issue. You list your pathetic outrages like a little girl stamping her feet in frustration at her own ignorance and confusion. Peddle your self-loathing-white-Jewish-American-human guilt at your favorite whine bar and leave trying to portray substance to the good writers.

    • At least I am strong enough in my beliefs ( backed up by facts in the hyperlinks! Please let me know if there is a specific claim that you would like more info on) to sign my name. – Leora Falk

  3. Leora,

    (I sent an immediate email reply. Just saw “noreply” from wordpress)

    At least your strong enough in your beliefs? what does that mean, and what in the world has it to do with the death of Michael Brown?
    “Specific claims”? You’re kidding. You made no claims. You listed your hurt feelings in a trite and annoying manner; “I’m outraged, I’m outraged, I’m outraged…” So what? I’m outraged myself.
    Please list the elements of fact of the shooting that outrage you. What facts presented by the police do you disagree with and why? Please cite your evidence and your source for your evidence. The grand jury should hear from you and the many others like you. If you have inside, eye witness information that would be valuable to the police and to the Brown family and to justice, you should petition the justice dept. or the state’s attorney and insist on presenting your facts to the grand jury.
    Read what you wrote. You tell me what “specific claims” of fact about the Brown shooting that you have cited and that you dispute.
    BTW, you are up late. I was surprised to see your reply. I was about to sign off. I shouldn’t drink coffee after 3pm.
    Thanks, Buck

  4. Hi Buck,

    This is the last time I will be responding to you unless you change your tone, as I am not sure why you continue to engage with me if you find me so annoying. What I meant in my last comment is that when I have an opinion–since this blog post, like most blog posts on the Internet is in fact an opinion piece–I am willing to stand by it by signing my name. You have come here to attack my opinion but do not use your full, real name to do so. Why?

    What I tried to convey in my post is as follows:
    1. We still do not know the facts of the shooting. That is why I used words and phrases such as “may have” and “probably.”
    2. Regardless of what the facts of this particular shooting are, it brought to the surface a lot of justifiable anger about racism in Ferguson and beyond. The evidence of this racism is present in the disproportionate number of black people who are pulled over compared to white people in Ferguson despite a higher rate of actually finding something among the white people pulled over. This is part of a larger school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects black men. For more information about this in Ferguson and elsewhere, here are some things to look at:
    http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/ferguson-missouri/

    http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119071/michael-brown-shooting-we-know-about-racial-profiling-dont-act

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-arrest/school-to-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet/

    3. Subconscious racism still exists in this country, and as a corollary, white privilege exists. Take for example, bias in hiring based on race/racially coded names, and the way black men are portrayed in the media:
    http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html

    http://www.theroot.com/blogs/the_grapevine/2014/08/_iftheygunnedmedown_shows_how_black_people_are_portrayed_in_mainstream_media.html
    (Yes, this last one is not, “facts” per se, but sometimes being a citizen of this world involves looking critically about how others are portrayed and what that makes them feel. You can disagree with the facts, but saying you disagree with someone else’s lived experiences does not, in fact, erase those experiences).
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html

    I think that those must be the facts you were looking for, since those are the facts that my outrage was directed to (unless you think that my concern about freedoms in the constitution, the death of a teenager, and the American Dream should not be universal concerns, in which case, sorry).

    If you are interested, Jon Stewart’s take also hits on a lot of these issues, as does John Oliver’s. If you can, watch with open eyes even if you are inclined to disagree with them. Oliver also addresses police militarization, which I addressed only in passing.

    ~Leora

  5. Leona,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I will take the appropriate time in return.
    What has my “full, real name” got to do with what I think and say, other than retribution? If I were being paid, I’d make my full name and address available. I’d have to. Attibution in this modern liberal, social media cess pool is, to say the least, risky, and is a tradeoff that I need not make, for reasons that you can’t honestly deny. Do you know all of your respondants personally? You made yourself public as a career choice, as a former journalist and as a current government employee. Do you reject all use of pseudonym and accept no justification for anonymity? That’s an awful lot of human history.
    If you can sufficiently explain to my why the context and content of this obsure online exchange offers a reason, legal or otherwise, I’m listening.
    Knowing nothing about you – since I stumbled upon you by chance, and couldn’t care less who you are – wouldn’t have changed my reaction to anything that you said. You knowing my name wouldn’t have changed your reaction to me. Would it? Would you google it or do a background check in order to establish the strength of my beliefs?
    Your opinion, which is what you offer in this context, has nothing to do with your name, unless of course, you are a fearful apparachik towing the party line.
    That you don’t know me, means that I am the one who is most fully unconstrained by some authority or by some finanical or social relationship, not you. I’m interested in what you think, in an exchange of ideas, not your “real” name.
    In your post, the very first thing that you do is to distinquished yourself as the only one who cares among “a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backrounds to me,..” You claim that “they” don’t see it “your” way. You distinguish yourself as the only human and American among a lot of people who look like you. How is that not “outrageous”? You are, in your own opinion, vastly superior to “a lot of people who look like you”. That’s a lofty place. You must be very proud.
    But, you neglect to explain how and why, and to provide a list of “full and real names” of this “lot of people”.
    Your heart bleeds for “black boys” and “systemic racism”. You cite and link sources to more opinions, which may or may not contain relevent and accurate facts and data, which have obviously informed your opinions.
    Next your admit to white guilt: “I can turn off the news…Idon’t live with that…I have the privilege…”
    Move to Ferguson or into an urban environment like Ferguson, near you. “Do the right thing.” I’m sure that you, unlike “a lot of people who look like [you]” will thrive and make a difference.
    But you’re not going to do that, and you know full well why. But don’t talk about that.
    You cite a fictional claim of “lynching”, then you expect me to accept your lame deflection that Darren Wilson was not “likely…overtly racist”. Racist, yes; but, not overtly. That couldn’t be more intellectually dishonest. You should be ashamed and embarrassed.
    No lynching is justified. Hanging by vigilante is murder and is a horrific crime. Tuskegee University, a historically black university, is considered to be the best source on the history of lynching. Their annual Lynch Report cites a total of 4,733 persons had died as a result of lynching since 1882. Tuskegee says that most were black, some were Mexican and Chinese, and that many were white. Other researchers put the number of lynched whites much higher in the west. That’s an average of three per month over 130 years. How many in your life-time Leora? Is the criminal and horrific act of lynching truly the subtext of your writing about Ferguson?
    “Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but…” May not? That’s it? You suggest it, then you casually and half-heartedly “may not” it? I’m not supposed to think about Michael Brown? Really? You expect that to fly? You’re a grown women with an expensive education. Do you honestly deny anything remotely like “my countries darker side,…”?
    You say “Yes: ‘We.’ This should be a problem for everyone.” You did not say, “yes, me, and here is why…”
    You advise me to “check my language”?
    Then you laughably advise everyone to ask how they can change “themselves”, “change the system, no matter how small an impact”. Then you make fun of your own bewilderment. Are you advocating something or not? You don’t sound like a serious person. What is it that you want me and everyone else to do? Please explain.
    Then you admit to being “mind-boggled” by a strawman that you set up concerning the criminal looting. You post a comment about other’s concerns for safety, then leap to defend against claims of justified looting. You make no sense.
    Then, off you go; ventng your “outrages”, as if your are the last human standing.
    In your last reply to me you enumerated “what [you] tried to convey in [your] post.”
    “1. We still do not know the facts of the shooting.” Yet, you write an opinion piece inspite of no facts. Had it been universally known, proven and accepted that Michael Brown intiated the beating and attempted the murder of an innocent white police officer who was honorably doing what the citizens demand be done; the dangerous and necessary policing of their neighborhood, when he was forced to lawfully act to defend himself against a younger, much larger and insurmountably more powerful, attacking male with a clear intent to incompacitate or kill, would you have written your opinon?
    “2. Regardless of what the facts of this particular shooting are, it…” This particular shooting is what prompted your “outrage”. “Regardless”? You’re not thinking about what you’re saying.
    You titled your opinion piece: Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson.
    Were you researching and writing about Ferguson before “this particular shooting” and “regardless” of it?
    You list “reporting” and opinions for me to read. I’ve read dozens already. I’ll wait for the trial. I’ve read what has been officially released, and I’ve listened to Dorian Johnson repeat his well articulated story. I defended him here [http://www.thinkinghousewife.com/wp/2014/08/friend-of-michael-brown-describes-shooting/] ( using the name Buck) because we had insufficient facts. I watched what appeared to be the “gentle giant” act like a thug with that tiny store manager. Witness reports and security camera video need to be scrutinized and facts need to be presented to the grand jury. Let it happen. Help or get out of the way.
    You reacted to this shooting with your own ingrained bias. You can’t help it. Your words bely your mind set. You’re a bleeding heart liberal, as we used to say back when.
    As far as my “tone”? I made my honest observations. I Intended no insult or ridicule. I was, though, justifiably “outraged” that you deemed me and a lot of others that look like you, inhuman and un-American.
    I’ll take a look at the two comics, Oliver and Stewart. I hope that they are not your source for the truth.
    Buck

    • Given that I also provided links to news articles, personal essays, and academic studies in both my post and my comment, I think it’s clear that I don’t use comedy shows as my source for truth, but sometimes there is still value in it.

  6. Some day you’re going to have an original thought. Hopefully it won’t disturb the patty-cake, patty-cake with your “readers”. good luck..

    • I gave you a lot of time. I never resorted to name calling and insults. But you indicated you didn’t want to read the sources I brought to support my opinions and that you disagreed with my opinions. Disagreement is fine, but at some point I need to make a decision about how I want to spend my time, and I’ve gone over the amount of time I want to spend arguing with a stranger on the internet. Thank you for taking the time to discuss with me and for reading my blog.

      • My God. You are absolutely clueless. The very first thing out of your mouth was an outrageous insult of everyone who disagrees with you. You called them inhuman and un-American. You couldn’t be more intellectually dishonest.

  7. Clarification for anyone who wants it: I think caring about racism as discussed in light of #Ferguson should be something all Americans and humans do, but I understand that some people (yes, still humans and Americans) don’t see it that way. I just disagree with them. The right to an opinion and to disagree with me is part of the American way (hey! I even defended those rights in the blog post).

  8. So, after I cite your insult, you finally respond with a soft-peddled dismissal as if it wasn’t real? You can’t be as clueless and un-self-aware as you pretend to be. One trite and inane cliché after another. “I care about racism”? Well, just as long as people like you care, I’m sure that everyone in Ferguson feels much better.

  9. The reason why people are upset that this story has blown up so much is that it shouldn’t have and it actually hinders the movement for equality. When you are looking for a case on which to plant your flag or hang your hat, you don’t pick one this dubious. Everyone has a Michael Brown t-shirt and putting their hands up in protest. The guy strong-armed a shop owner who tried to keep him from stealing cigars and then this incident happened. No, that doesn’t mean he should die but is it so hard to believe that the same guy resisted arrested and forced Wilson’s hand in resorting to firing his weapon? It’s a tragedy any time someone dies and their mother will always be sad and think it was never her son’s fault but that’s just not reality. There are cases like this all the time. Why did this story gain traction? There have been several shootings of unarmed white people by police in similar situations that don’t go to trial and they don’t make national news and spark a national outcry. You know why? Because sane people realize that very unfortunate things happen to people when they resist arrest or show aggression to cops. It doesn’t matter what color you are. A police officer will protect their life and the lives of their fellow officers if they think it’s at risk. And rightly so. As it is, the prime exhibit for police racism is this Michael Brown case and it actually enforces racist views because the shooting was actually justified when evidence came to light. In the meantime mob mentality and a knee-jerk media made it into what it is. I feel as bad for Michael Brown as I do for another white guy in the same situation. It isn’t an indicator of race relations in the US. The whole thing is just an example of sensationalism and mob mentality….and a mob and prejudice are very similar. You’re making a conclusion not considering the facts. I don’t care what color you are, unless you are related to Michael Brown or one of his friends, this story shouldn’t hit home at all. There are thousands of horrible things happening around the globe and my heart is supposed to break for Michael Brown?

    • So sorry it took me such a long time to respond. I don’t ask that your heart do anything, but regardless of the details of this particular case, the fact is that black men are killed at a higher rate than white men by the police and that there is a long history of racism in this country which contributes to the relationships between black communities and the police, and this is something that I feel it is important for me to grapple with from my place of privilege. I am working on another blog post that I hope will address some more of your concerns.

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