The events surrounding Ferguson are producing ripple effects here and abroad. What do we do with this potential?
My mother lives in Nashville, Tennessee, which is both my home city and the city I like to think I escaped from. We both live hundreds of miles away from Ferguson, Missouri. Though we are in the American South, we try to separate the political issues of race from our daily lives: we are admittedly quite white. Whiteness defines our phenomenological experience of the world. Were the philosopher Heidegger to write about us, he might coin a new term in his jargon. “Being-white:” the pale Dasein. Nevertheless, protesters have taken to the streets of Nashville in solidarity with the protests still raging in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown and the grand jury’s treatment of Darren Wilson. Make no mistake, we are living in history, which comes first as tragedy and then as farce.
The Nashville protesters staged a sit-down on the interstate, a more powerful evolution of the Civil Rights Movement era sit-in, in order to block traffic and ensure that their ideas are recognized publicly. I remain sympathetic to them—protests are a very American phenomenon, even the violent ones—because I abhor racism and the sluggish behemoth that is the American justice system. Michelle Alexander, author of the marvelously-researched book on black imprisonment The New Jim Crow, lectured at my university in Knoxville a few years ago. I had Angela Davis, former leader of the Communist Party USA, sign my copy of Marx’s Capital when she visited and I fist-bumped her with the same hand I used to fist-bump Noam Chomsky. I am a leftist, which is to say, one of my chief dreams for the coming decades is the abolition of institutional racism.
If the Ferguson spectacle can produce ripple effects all the way to Nashville and abroad, will it do so with the pacifist ideology of Dr. King, that master theorist of his zeitgeist (King read more Marx than most leftists did), or will it do so with the rage of the likes of Malcolm X and Guy DeBord, a racial separatist and a French Marxist? Will we learn how to be careful or rageful from this tragedy, lest we reduce it to a farce? At the Ferguson riots the police shot a pregnant woman in the face with a bean-bag riot gun. She lost an eyeball—and people, mostly white people, are still claiming there is no such thing as police brutality. We are a confused nation if we are anything.
Therefore, I must ask the question: what to do with our American rage? White and black alike are incensed in some capacity in regards to the events in Ferguson, a name which will likely endure in the public consciousness for some time. I hope my white readers are sympathetic to the anti-racist crusading of the protesters; I hope my black readers do not feel abandoned by their racist white friends or their white friends who thought they could somehow “apologize for being white,” which I’ve heard some people do. Any time the horrific phrase “race riot” can be used to refer to ongoing events, the situation is bad. No, it is terrible. And everyone is sure to exhibit some strong, even irrational emotions.
But will we riot, condescend, theorize, vote, or educate ourselves as to what it means to be first a man and then a man of color, or one rather lacking in it? Might we combine these?
I, for one, don’t look down on anyone who wants to riot. Actually doing it is another matter, however. When one feels himself a victim, one ought not react sheepishly. But behind a riot must be a brain. The Ferguson disaster has real potential to prove world-historical in scope: we have what appears to be a form of martial law in the United States, which is to say, our repressive apparatus is rearing its head once again at populist agitation. In other countries these events rarely take on racial clothing, but this is America, after all, and in part racism is coincident with our history.
My hope for this rather revolutionary endeavor is that there is no climbing death toll—but property damage does not matter. Why should it? Most of Ferguson is already impoverished. To mourn a store window but not the dead is to blaspheme the human condition. In a word, my hope for Ferguson is that it not only re-introduces what used to be called “the racial question” back into the national discourse, but also that is re-introduces “the economic question” back into it, as well.
Did you know under President Obama the median income for black families has decreased (he has also deported more illegal immigrants than did the Bush regime)? I think America can have all the political talk it wants along with all the social assuagement; but claiming that America is not a racist country when its black minorities are on average poorer than the white majority is to stubbornly fly in the face of evidence.
Economics will determine what our next generation of Americans thinks of the concept of “race.” I do hope if we can’t abolish that concept, then we might at least abolish its material concept of “racism.” If we don’t, the future will have a contour not of freedom and the American way, but one of conflict, and in one word, rage. The white oppressed and the black oppressed must get together and recognize their oppression lies not in some strange essence we call “race” but rather in their living conditions, wealth statuses, and how hard they must work in comparison to the managerial and capitalist classes. This is the social medicine toward which Ferguson is working now, however unbeknownst that motive is in the short eye of history.
If Ferguson breeds more racial conflict instead of solving it, I can say without reservation that it will prove a failure.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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