The first film ever shown in the White House was "Birth of a Nation", which was created to idolize the KKK after reconstruction. Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman and his murders were acquitted in less than two hours. Long after the abolition of slavery, a group of people within our country continued to live as second-rate citizens. Though we like to believe we've since progressed and try to consider ourselves more tolerant, recent events show that our history may not be so different from our present.
The issue with Ferguson is not just the fact that an unarmed black person was shot by police, an incident all too common in the United States. Rather, it is the fact that Ferguson is a microcosm of normal life for people of color under the system of (in)justice. Riots and looters naturally capture our attention, but if we want to focus on black people creating riots in Ferguson due to race relations we should also take the time to acknowledge the numerous times people of all races have started meaningless riots. For example, San Francisco in both 2012 and 2014 after Giants' World Series victories or Tennessee in 2010 after Lane Kiffin unexpectedly resigned. However, our focus shouldn't be on the riots in Ferguson, but on the racialized history that has created such a tense situation.
Ferguson, like many Midwestern cities, is a product of early housing discrimination that succeeded in its attempt to create a segregated society. This segregation has created decades of racial profiling and cyclical poverty. While the situation went largely unnoticed outside of Ferguson, the Brown shooting was a catalyst for seams waiting to burst.
To put it in perspective, envision yourself as a 10-year-old black male sitting in your fifth grade history course. Unlike your classmates of Irish or German ancestry, you are told that your ancestors were forcefully brought here. You learn that they were considered three-fifths of a person, so that states with heavy slave populations could get higher congressional representation. You hear about how your grandfather spent his youth not being able to drink from the same fountains as his white peers. You are told that when you are 14 you can be tried as an adult, four years before your white classmates.
This hypothetical should infuriate and fluster you. But for many, it's hardly a hypothetical. We can't imagine what hell it must be to live this daily.
America has made great strides towards its promise of equality, but we're still struggling to deliver in full. Racism and poverty are intertwined at an alarming level. "The New Jim Crow" is our for-profit prison complex that locks away black youths at a disproportionately higher and longer rate for the same crimes as their white peers. After release, they have lower access to affordable housing, employment and education.
Michael Brown's death is not the sole reason that events in Ferguson are unfolding in this manner. It is over 400 years of oppression and systemic racism that have disenfranchised an entire race of people. It is the fact that a black President cannot openly speak about race without further polarizing the people of America. It is the fact that being a black teenager with a hoodie and Skittles makes you seem dangerous enough for your murderer to be acquitted. It is the fact that many in our society are aware of the previous oppression and discrimination, but tell the victims to "get over it because that was a long time ago".
It's a shame that we so often neglect black lives that we need a hashtag that reminds us #BlackLivesMatter. We can't transform a broken system overnight, but we can be aware. We can't pretend to fully understand what's going through the minds of America's black population, but we owe it to everyone in our nation to be cognizant of the history. We owe it to everyone to recognize the importance of historical context in shaping today's occurrences.
We can never know for certain if the events in Ferguson would have unfolded differently had Michael Brown been white. Race could have played no factor, or it could have been the only one. However, until we can address the issues that plague our justice system, it will remain a source of fear and resentment for millions. To move towards this goal, we have to acknowledge the overbearing blemishes on this nation's history. We have to be willing to listen to grievances and create compromise. We have to do so much more than we are currently doing, because if not, "those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable."