Reflections on Ferguson

Amid the maelstrom of protests, civil disturbances, and media feeding-frenzy spawned by the killing of the young black man Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, at least three points should be considered. This writing expresses no opinion on whether the shooting was justified. That has to wait for all the facts to come out. It is a good guess, however, that there will still be enough ambiguities to keep the pot stirred.

John McWhorter, a linguist by profession, has opined in a article for the New Republic that ending the so-called War on Drugs is a reform that will surely help prevent future Fergusons. McWhorter, who happens to be black, has opinions that traverse the political spectrum. The New Republic slants to the left, but he is or has been a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right leaning think tank. He does not like the descriptive term “African-American,” does not think much of affirmative action, and has supported Obama in the past two Presidential elections. One supposes that McWhorter is pretty much a libertarian. Given that proclivity, it a not surprising that he believes the drug war is the work of the devil. He also has good reasons for that belief.

“Much of what creates the poisonous, vicious-cycle relationship between young black men and the police is that the War on Drugs brings cops into black neighborhoods to patrol for drug possession and sale. Without that policy—which would include that no one could make a living selling drugs—the entire structure supporting the notion of young black men as criminals would fall apart. White men with guns would encounter young black men much less often, and meanwhile society would offer young black men less opportunity to drift into embodying the stereotype in the first place,” McWhorter writes.

He is correct. The most obvious aspect of the drug war, other than its futility, is that it makes the traffic in drugs exceptionally lucrative. That is so especially for young black men who see it as a short cut to affluence. What young man doesn’t wish to be able to drive a fancy, expensive car, wear designer clothes, and squire attractive women around town? The role model who has such trappings for poor young black men is the drug dealer. The rub is that if you get caught, you can go to prison for a long time, given the draconian sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences for dealing illegal drugs. Felons are essentially unemployable in decent paying legal occupation. Even if they were not, terms in prison mean a long association with dysfunctional people that imbues the convict with that culture. Of course, the mental state for these young men is that getting caught is what happens to the other guy. As far as the prospect of severe punishment goes, the Enlightenment writer Cesare Beccaria observed in his 1764 work On Crimes and Punishments, that no punishment can be severe enough to prevent someone from committing a crime seen to be to his immediate advantage. Beccaria has been proven correct over and over again. It is time to end the War on Drugs.

Another phenomenon is the locale of the Ferguson incident. The word “urban” has come to mean reference to the inner city ghetto, populated by black people, as well as other minorities, especially groups of recently arrived low-skilled immigrants. It may be becoming a misnomer. The government policy of moving subsidized housing out of he cities and into suburban communities, coupled with the “gentrification” of the inner city has created what the French call banlieus; that is, suburbs ringing large cities in which minorities are concentrated. The journey to central Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport takes a traveler through several suburbs populated by immigrants, mostly from North and West Africa, and their families. In recent years, those locales have been the scene of rioting and police clashes with the local residents, similar to that in Ferguson. The significance of the banlieu is that it increases the de facto segregation of groups by their culture and their members’ complexions to an even greater degree than the urban ghetto. Those in the broader culture (mostly, but not all, white people) move away, either to more distant suburbs, or the newly gentrified inner city areas that are now affordable only to the affluent.

This brings up the third point. So long as we, and especially our government, continue to classify human beings by their race or ethnicity, and make policy decisions on such demographics, invidious comparisons will always be made. We know that individual worth and accomplishment is not inherently related to ones skin color or hair texture – or from what part of world his ancestors lived. Those who come from different backgrounds and who have different skin hues, but assimilate into the broader culture, are more successful socially and economically than those who do not. Continuing our racial pigeonholes will hinder assimilation and diminish prospects, especially for so many young black men.

If there are lessons to learn from the Ferguson experience, these are worth examining.

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