THE BLOG
11/25/2014 08:03 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

'Bonfire of the Vanities' in Ferguson

Nearly thirty years ago, could someone have predicted the searing racial tension in the St. Louis area in 2014?

Perhaps, Tom Wolfe could have. His debut novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, explored the nuances of the racial and ethnic divide in New York City in the 1980s.

There is no question that St. Louis is not New York. That was true in the 1980s, as it is now.

Yet Wolfe's prescience on racial matters was never limited exclusively to New York, nor to the 1980s.

Since Bonfire, he has turned his novelistic eye and ear to the racial and ethnic turmoil in other locales in this country, Atlanta in A Man in Full; a mythical, sports-crazed, elite college in I Am Charlotte Simmons; and Miami in Back to Blood.

Originally a reporter, Wolfe has never stopped investigating and never stopped probing the depths of race relations. It is still the most salient and paradoxical issue in our flawed nation, even with our first African-American president, Barack Obama, a former Constitutional Law professor.

How could it be otherwise given that slavery was essentially enshrined in our Constitution!

That the Constitution is viewed by many as a sacred document, as if it were etched on tablets by God, stuns me, since, among other failings, it originally deemed African Americans to be 3/5th of a human being.

Given all of these painful nuances, I am not surprised that Bonfire, written by Wolfe, one of our great social satirists, resonates nearly 30 years after it was published.

Like Bonfire, which deals with the tragic death of an African-American teen, who is touted as an "honors" student, Michael Brown, the victim in the August 9 shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was depicted early on by many outlets as a studious, college-bound student.

A closer look of course revealed that neither the African-American teen in Bonfire nor Brown was as clean cut, studious and guileless as suggested by some. Just as the teen in Bonfire is no angel, there is no disputing that Brown robbed a convenience store shortly before his fatal encounter with Darren Wilson, a white policeman.

As for Wilson, he does not really resemble Sherman McCoy, a civilian bond trader, a "Master of the Universe," except for the fact that Wilson too got involved in a deadly altercation with an African-American youth.

While any reasonable person will agree that Brown should never have been killed, the facts in the Brown case, as in the case in Bonfire, remain murky.

We may never get a definitive answer on whether or not Brown "charged" Wilson. Witnesses differed in their testimony to the grand jury, but just as Brown was not an angel, neither was Wilson.

Earlier today, the story broke that Wilson referred to Brown, with whom he was allegedly struggling, as having the face of "a demon." That does not necessarily sound like racial animus as much as it sounds like the fear of a policeman who was tangling at close quarters with a much larger man.

Yet one can understand why the Justice Department is still investigating the possibility of a federal civil rights violation under the "color of law," a brutally ironic phrase given the circumstances.

Getting back to Bonfire, Wolfe showed his wisdom in portraying McCoy as a narcissistic, deeply flawed man, an adulterer, who preens over his status as a Wall Street honcho yet who cannot explain the nature of bond trading to his own daughter, because, at core, his job and his soul are hollow.

While the prosecutor in the Ferguson case decided to convene a grand jury, rather than try the case, McCoy, the protagonist in Bonfire, is arrested and tried before a jury.

In the end, no one is a saint in a Wolfe book. That is true in the Ferguson case too, as it is in life.

As I wrote earlier this year, on the 25th anniversary of the Bensonhurst hate crime in New York, each case must be assessed individually and on the facts. For every case like Bensonhurst, in which Yusuf Hawkins, an unarmed black youth, was gunned down by a mob of white punks, there were cases like Tawana Brawley, who lied about having been gang-raped by white men.

Yet as I pointed out in my earlier piece in August of this year, the fact that Tawana Brawley lied did not diminish the fact that African-Americans had been victimized by what seemed like a spate of hate crimes and acts of police brutality in the 1980s.

Michael Brown did not lie. Instead, he died far too young. The criminal justice system still has inherent flaws that lead it to target a disproportionate number of young black men and other minorities.

That does not mean that we have not made some progress on civil rights in this country. We have an African-American president, a New York mayor who is married to a black woman and numerous interracial couples in this nation now, something that was not true in the 1980s.

Yes, members of the black community in Ferguson and elsewhere have an understandable distrust for the criminal justice system, and, yes, minorities and so many of the rest of us are disheartened by the grand jury's failure to indict Darren Wilson.

But acts of destruction, looting and vandalism, as occurred last night, are not the answer. They lead only to another bonfire in our country's charred soul.