The conclusion reached at the end of the recent federal probe on the Ferguson Police department should come as no surprise: a culture of bias exists in the Ferguson Police department. According to the Wall Street Journal, “…the Justice Department probe concluded…Police in Ferguson routinely violated the civil rights of the city’s Black residents.”
Such a conclusion also raises further questions about the Grand Jury ruling that exonerated Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Before the Justice Department probe and despite conflicting stories by witnesses that now might be attributed to how they were treated or questioned within the prevailing police culture of bias, evidence of this bias was fully apparent in the composition of the majority white police force overseeing the majority Black protesters, and the police’s quickness to act harshly and punitively against all demonstrators for the aggressive acts of a few. It didn’t take rocket science or a federal probe to state the obvious. White policemen have been conditioned by their culture of bias to view Blacks with hostility and in need of punishment. In the context of such an acceptable racially charged belief system, violent acts against Blacks are always justified. The unwarranted death of Michael Brown was just one more notch in the belts of a police department that had little respect for Black life. It is the same department that sent anti-Black emails to each other routinely and without fear of any reprisal.
Local Black residents didn’t need the Justice Department to ride in on its federal horse and state the obvious. They were already familiar with the findings of the probe, having experienced and lived them up close and personal. Black residents in Ferguson every day were subjected to what can only be described as a culture of racial violence perpetrated and perpetuated by the very state institution that is supposed to protect them. The daily fear of retribution that characterized their everyday lives is not unlike the fear southern Blacks experienced during the Jim Crow era when stepping out of line or for no apparent reason, except to entertain, thousands of Blacks were routinely lynched.
During the protests in Ferguson, Black residents consistently described their personal experience with what now must be construed as modern-day lynching through a pervasive climate of police-instigated racial profiling and routine coercion, intimidation and punishment. For these residents, the federal probe was spot on. Some residents have accrued thousands of dollars in tickets for infractions that can only be described as ludicrous. The Feds may have to also look into restitution and whether the Ferguson police force willfully financially exploited Black residents out of this proven racial bias; some residents lost jobs because of this police harassment and others incurred significant financial burdens.
So the actions of all the Ferguson police force, including Darren Wilson, have to be viewed as having been heavily influenced by this culture of bias toward Blacks often articulated in the emails that were circulated on the official police server without any fear of sanctions. Officer Wilson went to work everyday and was exposed to a cultural belief system that denigrated Black life and viewed the loss of Black life as socially acceptable. In such a climate, taking a Black life will always be acceptable and justified. More to the point, the unapologetic denial of the mayor of Ferguson and his weak explanation that the emails just reflect the behavior of a few rogue policeman (who have been scapegoated and suspended) only reinforces the way in which racism in Ferguson is normalized and accepted.
This is what cultural bias does, it conditions members of the culture to overgeneralize and paint those for whom it harbors prejudice, resentment and racist ideology with a broad stroke of the same brush. This means that if you have encountered one example of criminal behavior by Blacks, then all Blacks are de facto criminals. This kind of group think is what Darren Wilson was conditioned by, alongside all the historical examples of Black stereotyping and criminalizing that exists in American culture, reinforced by monolithic media images of Black crime, popular rap music, videos, and media’s persistent coverage of negative Black behavior.
Because of this cultural mindset, it may have been more appropriate for the Grand Jury to have exonerated Darren Wilson by reason of racist insanity. It is the unfounded and irrational belief in white superiority that undergirds racist thought and behavior. But as Dr. Kesho Scott, a sociology professor at Grinnell College and practitioner of “Unlearning Racism” pedagogy, argues, people are not born racist, they learn it. There is no genetic predisposition among whites for racism. Rather racism, defined as the deliberate and systematic exclusion from strategic resources and intentional exercise of oppressive power over one group of people by another group, though learned, can also be unlearned. But dismantling the systems that support the racist behaviors won’t be easy. Why?
The thinking that drives racism is not logical but deeply rooted in folk beliefs that harken back to the days of Social Darwinism and Judeo-Christian religious interpretations used to justify social and class stratification and colonialism.
The so-called “natural” imperative to conquer and colonize was not always prevalent in human history. As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors in Africa (the cradle of human origins) were fairly egalitarian. Conflicts were resolved by people breaking off and establishing new groups. It is with the rise of agricultural production and state-level societies that we begin to see the disappearance of egalitarianism, the emergence of socially stratified societies and the hoarding of strategic resources (the beginning of capitalism as we know it today). Whereas hunter-gatherers roamed the land and used the resources at hand, in state-level societies, the idea of “ownership” comes into existence. In its earliest stages of development, priests were considered a privileged class with entitlements. Even as we have moved away from a social structure organized around priests, western civilizations and others societies have retained those historic vestiges of power, privilege and entitlements belonging to a few.
White power and privilege are fundamentally rooted in a belief that white skin contains some magic alchemy that renders the individual and the group superior to others who lack it, and entitles them to greater access to strategic resources and power. The beliefs that justify this come from many sources historically– the Bible where people with black skin are viewed as living embodiments of the “mark of Cain” and their lower status and subjugation justified (i.e., slavery and colonialism) as part of a divine plan. Differences in the social organization of societies that come in contact with each other has also been used to rationalize white supremacist thinking. Thus, the contact between the emerging industrial Europe and the communal societies of Africa led to the “civilized v. primitive” discourse that still informs how we view the world. Today the same ideology is cast as “developed v. non-developed” and “First world v. Third world.” What these concepts share is a fundamental belief in Eurocentric/white superiority and the “inherent” inferiority of non-whites or people of color.
This is a truncated explanation of the hostility, racism, and white supremacist thinking that fueled the culture of bias among Ferguson police. News flash: Ferguson is not an isolated incident. Across the United States and in Europe white supremacy thinking is resurfacing as a major lens through which people of color are being viewed and that is structuring how their lives are being shaped and damaged by systems of inequality.
Here in America, the culture of bias is pervasive and deeply rooted. Some of the very architects of the democratic framework of the United States of America also operates out of a culture of bias. Despite his relationship with Sally Hennings, Thomas Jefferson held a strong belief in inferiority of his Black slaves and his mixed off-spring. He also held a class position and lifestyle that benefitted enormously from slave labor. Monticello is not simply a monument to Jefferson’s genius as the architect of the Constitution and the architect of the “academic village” and what we now call public universities; Monticello stands as a monument to the talented Black slaves that produced the bricks, carved the nails and laid the foundations and walls with such precision that we admire it hundreds of years later. It was slave labor that produced the wealth that enabled Thomas Jefferson to lead a gentlemanly life of leisure and to build and modify Monticello several times. Yet Jefferson believed his slaves to be inferior despite the fact that their ability to translate his architectural vision into brick and mortar made it real.
The affirmation by the federal probe that Ferguson has an entrenched police culture of bias should not be surprising. White supremacy thinking is wired into the social fabric of this country alongside its democratic principles. They contradict each other and until we acknowledge that beliefs of racial inferiority and white supremacy and the structures that support them politically, economically, in the justice system, in education, in healthcare, etc., are not only still in place, but that those that were dismantled because of the Civil Rights and other movements and legislation are returning with a vengeance, until we acknowledge this 800lb gorilla of rampant inequality in our American social fabric, the tragedies of Ferguson and other places will continue and cultures of bias among police and other sectors (health, education, banking, court systems) will persist and become more even further entrenched.
But there is hope, to return to Dr. Scott, racism is learned behavior. It also is not confined to white people. People of color can adopt the mindset of white superiority. Thus, simply putting Blacks on the police force in Ferguson will not automatically eradicate the culture of bias. Black recruits can be sucked into it as well and become just as dangerous as white policemen. Also, we must be mindful that all white people have not drunk the white supremacy kool aid. Not all whites practice racism– and there are many who have devoted their lives to revealing white power and privilege and working to dismantle systems of inequality. We must not reverse the culture of bias by painting all whites with the same broad brush stroke. In this struggle to dismantle racism and eradicate all forms of inequality, we will need every willing recruit we can enlist. The battle cry has been sounded–#Blacklivesmatter, #Indianlivesmatter, and in the absence of a hashtag, we must become a country that believes in America #alllivesmatter, and make that truth we practice everyday.
(c ) 2015 McClaurin Solutions
Dr. Irma McClaurin is an anthropologist and writer residing near the DC metro area.