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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Ferguson, Missouri: Opening Up Old Wounds

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It's difficult to write about the racial and political implications of the killing in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer without rehashing what has been said a million times. When the inevitable incidents of police brutality or racially-tinged violence crop up -- be it Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, or Michael Brown -- you can count on a few news cycles featuring hand-wringing analysis followed by calls to action that everybody knows will never be answered.

The only reason why the Ferguson conflict managed to be sustained in the corporate media a little longer than most was because of the ongoing street protests that forced the wider society to at least acknowledge the social realities about what the black community faces on a daily basis -- police brutality being high profile yet one of many sources of discrimination.

Right-wing talk radio, Drudge, and Fox News seized the opportunity of the Brown shooting to bite down hard on the dog whistle they blow every day anyway. It was almost comical to see how quickly right-wingers like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity turned from lionizing white people who "stood up" against the "tyrannical" government during the Cliven Bundy ordeal to attacking black people in Ferguson for protesting against a far scarier militarized police force than anything the white folks in Nevada encountered.

On the other side, the so-called liberal media, especially MSNBC and CNN, offered all manner of analysis and largely sympathetic coverage of the plight of the black community in Ferguson, yet the analysis always seems to end with a call for what are essentially technocratic "solutions." Yes, de-militarizing the police would be a good thing, as would be hiring more black officers and reaching out to the community. But these are among the most obvious, pusillanimous, and politically "safe" of policy prescriptions.

What's needed in Ferguson and impoverished black communities across the nation goes far beyond short-term technocratic fixes. What is needed is exactly what the Kerner Commission recommended to the country 46 years ago: a comprehensive shift in the priorities of our social spending away from the military-industrial-prison complex and toward widespread development of impoverished parts of America.

As the scholar William Julius Wilson showed in his 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged, de-industrialization, white flight, and the drying up of sustained investments in public schools and infrastructure have left behind an impoverished "underclass" not only in Ferguson, but also in African-American urban centers from coast to coast.

Looking back even further there's nothing new going on economically or sociologically in Ferguson than what the Kerner Commission told us following the riots in Detroit and Newark in 1967. The 1968 Kerner Commission famously stated that America was becoming "two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." Reversing these trends required "a commitment to national action -- compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on this earth."

President Lyndon Johnson refused to accept a bound copy of the report and even denied the commission members the customary courtesy of a formal White House presentation. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy publicly criticized LBJ's dismissal of the Kerner Commission's recommendations. MLK and RFK had each toured separately South Central Los Angeles in the aftermath of the August 1965 Watts Riot (which, like Ferguson, was sparked by police brutality). And they came away with the same lessons moving forward.

Dr. King viewed the riots as the desperate voice of the unheard. His Poor People's Campaign was an attempt to create the conditions of protest in Washington through occupying public grounds where the Congress and administration would be forced to enact a $30 billion "domestic Marshall Plan" to bring economic fairness and development to the impoverished segments of the country.

Kennedy, in his March 16, 1968, announcement that he was challenging Johnson for the Democratic Party's nomination, stated explicitly that one of the reasons he was running for president was because "the report of the riot commission has been largely ignored." But even in 1968, when the black movement was strong and it had powerful allies inside the Democratic Party, the political will to enact the Kerner Commission's recommendations did not exist in this country.

There's been a lot of history since those days. MLK and RFK were both cut down before they could realize their potentials as national leaders. The Republican right discovered political gold in "Southern Strategy" politics. And soon GOP politicians and media figures became highly skilled at exploiting racial fears and breeding resentment through thinly veiled racial appeals.

It was no accident Ronald Reagan chose to launch his 1980 presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he told an overwhelmingly white audience: "I believe in states' rights. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment" (Quoted in Palermo 2013, The Eighties, p. 9). Remarks like these were no doubt music to the ears of white voters in Mississippi and elsewhere who believed the government had been paying far too much attention to African-American grievances.

Ian Haney Lopez, in Dog Whistle Politics (2014), shows pretty clearly how Republican politicians since the 1960s have adroitly exploited and exacerbated racial divisions between whites and blacks not only to win elections, but also to tear apart New Deal and Great Society programs by portraying them as little more than "give-aways" of tax dollars stripped from "hard-working" (white) people to be handed over to the undeserving (black) poor.

These "Southern Strategy" appeals over the past 45 years, mostly through subterranean cues and signifiers, have divided working people on social welfare issues along racial lines. We've been race-baited now to the point where a large swathe of the white electorate votes against its own class interests and ends up furthering the plutocratic corporate agenda that has seized Washington and most state houses and has nothing to offer workers other than ever lower wages, shitty benefits, and a shredded social safety net.

There's been much ado these days made about the election of the first African-American president (as there should be). But the drivel about "post-racial" America has tainted the discussion from the start. Like Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, electing a black man to the White House, although freighted with deep symbolism, does not on its own alter one bit the underlying racial dynamics and inequities of American society.

Indeed, if one pays attention to the cries coming from the wilderness of American political discourse from people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, you'll see that the plight of black America has actually gotten worse under the first African-American president.

And what we've seen since the election (and re-election) of the first black president is a level of congressional and state-level Republican obstructionism that is unprecedented in the history of American politics. African-American people in Ferguson and elsewhere in this country are familiar with police harassment for "Driving While Black," or, in Michael Brown's case, "Walking While Black." Since January 2009, what we've seen in Washington from the Republicans is Barack Obama being harassed mercilessly for the "crime" of "Being President While Black."

In Dr. King's last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote:

"The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled and feed the unfed. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for 'the least of these.'" (King 1967, p. 178)