As mother of an African American son, I understand the social, economic, and political challenges the nation is faced with in the wake of violent encounters between young Black males and law enforcement. I vividly remember the conversations my husband and I had with our son on how to "handle" himself in public so as to not attract undue attention, how to interact with others, and how to deal with the police. Like many other parents of color, we had to teach our son--who is now a police officer--to shoulder the burden of his skin.
From New York to Beavercreek, Ohio and Los Angeles to Ferguson, Missouri the weight of this burden, and the strain it places on the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement, has once more manifested itself. The symptoms of this are obvious-- in too many towns and cities around the United States governments do not reflect their constituents, elected officials are incapable of representing those who most need their voices heard, and law enforcement leaders are ill equipped to ease the tensions that result.
As clear as the problem is, the causes are also well known: the failure to build real relationships across community and racial boundaries, the lack of an honest dialogue about the challenges, and voter complacency and election systems designed to reduce the voice of the people. The anger in Ferguson is the outcome of those in power failing to reflect and understand the needs of those they represent--not only because of ignorance or neglect, but because the people who have the power to elect them failed to hold them accountable.
Although 70 percent of Ferguson's population is African American only one of the city's six council members and two of seven school board members are people of color. Just three of 53 police officers are African American, a diversity gap that does not promote cultural understanding.
During the latest round of municipal elections in the city, barely 12 percent of voters bothered to cast a ballot. The numbers are even worse in Ferguson's African American community, where only six percent of eligible voters cast ballots. It comes as no surprise, then, that the government reflects those who voted and not the broader community.
It is the duty of governments to create a pro-voter environment that encourages participation, but it is also the responsibility of citizens to make their voices heard.
It is unfortunate, but certainly not surprising, that many Republican leaders in Missouri are "disgusted" by voter registration and awareness activities happening on the ground in Ferguson to overcome these challenges. This is the same party that is largely responsible for the new election restrictions voters will face in 22 states this fall. Turning back the clock has become something of a party platform, so it is to be expected that efforts to educate, engage, and empower the electorate would face resistance.
Currently there are efforts to affect change by peaceful means through the ballot box on the ground in Ferguson, and this work is to be commended. This is the more constructive, impactful, and long lasting outlet for the anger in Ferguson. Casting a ballot on Election Day--or during a recall election even sooner--may not seem as immediately satisfying as other potential outlets for the frustration that residents are coping with, but it is far more productive. Real change begins with citizens registering to vote, becoming active and engaged in their communities, and casting their ballot at every election for those who will fairly and accurately represent them.
A community belongs to those who take ownership of it. And in too many cases, too many Americans are giving up their ability to control the future of their city, state, and country. There's no doubt that the voting games we've seen played in state legislatures and city councils across the country must end, but at the same time the responsibility rests with voters to shape the communities that they wish to live in.
In the end, the problems faced in Ferguson are deeper than the lack of trust between a community and their police force. In turn, the solution will require more than the result of any one investigation. The only real fix to unrepresentative and unresponsive governments is participation--at the ballot box, at city council meetings, and making sure everyone's voice can be heard. This is about participation, accountability, and equal and accurate representation. This is about the necessity of embracing diverse perspectives to portray collective empathy through government for the hurdles and dreams of all Americans.
A generation from now, I hope that my son does not have to give the same advice to his children as his father and I gave him. The summer of 2014 will be known for something beyond the anniversaries of the civil rights achievements that have led to so much progress in our nation. Whether that page in our history reads that Ferguson was another bump on a downhill slide, or a turning point at which Americans of all colors and backgrounds realized they have the power to shape a better future is unknown. But there is certainty in the power of the ballot box to transform circumstances and create better outcomes in our communities, our states, and our nation.
You have a voice, you have a vote. Use it.