As someone who has served as a prosecutor, prison educator and criminal justice reform advocate, I can attest that the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, culminating in the district attorney's announcement on Monday night that the grand jury voted not to indict Officer Wilson for the killing of Mike Brown, are indicative of deep racial problems in our criminal justice system and our culture in general. The protests in Ferguson and around the country are not simply about this one case, just as the Civil Rights Movement was not merely about where Rosa Parks sat on a Montgomery bus. In both instances, the drama surrounding particular individuals was indicative of larger, systemic injustice. Institutionalized racism, as much as we hate to admit it, is at the core of both episodes, though they are separated by almost six decades.
Officer Wilson's fatal shooting of Mike Brown and the system's refusal to hold the officer accountable serve as a tragic reminder that African-Americans have suffered generations of injustice. First they were enslaved. Although one form of slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, black Americans were then subjected to Jim Crow laws and they were lynched with impunity. Even after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, for four decades poor African-Americans have been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs and militarized law enforcement agencies that enforce those laws. At every step of our judicial process, African-Americans receive disparate treatment. They are more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for similar crimes. Once arrested, they are more likely to be formally charged. Once charged, they are more likely to be convicted. Once convicted, they are more likely to receive sentences of incarceration.
As noted by author Michelle Alexander, when these people are released from prison, they are permanently relegated to the role of second-class citizen. Basic social services are denied them due to their status as convicted felons. They are forever barred from voting, causing entire sections of our communities to be politically disenfranchised. And they must indicate their felon status on job applications, making it increasingly unlikely that they will ever be able to secure meaningful employment. These policies are not overtly based on race, but there is no question that as applied, they have a disproportionate and devastating impact on people of color across the nation.
The shooting of Mike Brown and the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson are the most recent examples of an awful truth: throughout American history and in our modern society, black lives have not mattered. White society has allowed African-Americans to be enslaved, lynched, warehoused and shot to death in our streets. We have failed to live up to our stated ideal of all people being created equal. Our lack of concern for the well-being of African-American citizens is manifested not only in the prejudices, suspicions and fears of our hearts, and not only in our outward words and attitudes, but in the very systems and institutions that claim to do justice.
Perhaps we were foolish to look to the grand jury to indict Officer Wilson, as though the filing of a criminal charge against one man could undo centuries of violent oppression. After all, unjust systems do not correct themselves. Nevertheless, the grand jury's inaction has stoked the fires of anger and frustration in people who can only suffer unequal treatment for so long. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, "A riot is the language of the unheard." Yet many of us would deny African-Americans the right even to be angry. Some of us seem far more concerned about the burning of a car than we ever were over the tragic killing of an unarmed young black man.
Ferguson is one more terrible reminder that we have failed to regard one another as neighbors. We have failed to seek understanding or to act and speak with compassion. Again, Michelle Alexander teaches us that until we confront and conquer the underlying issue of racism, it will continue to manifest itself in insidious new ways in our hearts and our institutions. This is a problem that no grand jury can solve. The work of reconciliation begins not with courts, lawyers or the media. It begins with me and you.