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Rage in Ferguson Offers Important Lesson

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FERGUSON
The Washington Post via Getty Images

The seemingly nonstop coverage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, by cable news networks provided little beyond a disturbing loop of images -- officers with guns trained on civilians, smoking tear gas canisters flying through the night air and the surreal sight of armored vehicles rolling through an American city.

Almost two weeks after Michael Brown died in the street after being shot by a police officer a half-dozen times, this nation hasn't taken the steps necessary to understand the root causes of the rage in Ferguson.

And, as a nation, we must understand it.

The rage in Ferguson goes beyond the death of Michael Brown. It's about what African Americans in Ferguson and elsewhere experience every day.

For too many, it is a cycle of poverty, discrimination and hopelessness. It is life in neighborhoods where encounters with the local police leave residents feeling that the police aren't there to protect and serve -- but are rather an occupying force.

There are plenty of reasons behind this pervasive sense of hopelessness.

For many young people of color, it starts in school. That's where harsh zero-tolerance policies disproportionately push black children out of class and into the juvenile justice system.

Many of these children will not finish high school but rather "graduate" into the adult criminal justice system -- one that has undergone a massive, and unprecedented, expansion over the past four decades. This growth, while initially a reaction to rising crime rates, has been largely the product of a long and destructive campaign by certain political interests to stoke white anxiety and fear in the wake of the civil rights movement -- fear of young black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Our country now has seven times the number of prisoners it had in 1972 -- leading the world, by far, in both the total prison population and the per-capita incarceration rate.

The grim fact is that African-American men born since the late 1960s are more likely to have served time in prison than to have completed college with a four-year degree. Those under 35 who failed to finish high school are now more likely to be behind bars than in jobs.

Part of this is explained by the fact that police in many cities routinely target young black men for drug arrests. Although black and white people use drugs at roughly the same rates, arrest rates are three to five times higher for African Americans.

The children of incarcerated parents suffer the consequences as well. From 1991 to 2007, the number of children of any race with an incarcerated father rose 77 percent, the National Academy of Sciences has reported. The number of children with a mother incarcerated climbed 131 percent during the same time.

Once released from prison, people face joblessness, family breakdown, poverty and other seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Even if a black household hasn't struggled with a member being incarcerated, there are significant obstacles. As Thomas B. Edsall recently noted in the New York Times, the median income for black households in 2012 was just 58.4 percent of white household income -- virtually the same level as in 1967. In other words, the economic gains since the civil rights movement have been erased for many black households.

But the protestors in Ferguson don't need to read statistics to recognize the problems facing their community. They see them every day. It took the sight of Michael Brown's lifeless body in the street for the rest of the nation to notice.

Now, we must listen and understand.

We must listen to and understand the protestors. We must listen to and understand people trapped in cycles of poverty and hopelessness -- people subjected to police harassment that's beyond the comprehension of those living in more privileged communities. The statistics speak loud and clear, but the voices behind these numbers have been ignored for far too long.

It's time to listen to the hopes and fears of all Americans. It's time to recognize the injustices that we must eliminate to ensure all Americans can pursue their dreams. And we must do it before the rage our nation has witnessed permanently supplants hope.