Reflections on Ferguson: Representation

Reflections on Ferguson: Representation

This blog continues a series of reflections prompted by events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Years ago, we added a young man to our family as a foster son. The boy I’ll call Abraham had seen a bit too much of the worst things in life in his short seven years. In time, we would ask to have him placed in a home where those wounds could be addressed more effectively than they could be by us.

I’d like to believe, however, that we all experienced some growth during our two years together.

Abraham could be a real charmer, especially when his natural and rich childish delight in discoveries bubbled to the surface. That’s what happened the first Sunday morning that Fr. Stephan Brown, S.V.D. celebrated Mass.

Abraham’s eyes grew wide. Wonder and joy radiated from his face.

Abraham had a hard time articulating what he was feeling, but it came down to this: Fr. Stephan, a priest, a great preacher, an important (and, indeed, wonderful) man, was just like Abraham.

He was African-American.

Throughout history, sincerely dedicated and profoundly effective religious leaders, community activists, public officials, business leaders, educators and others have improved the circumstances of life for countless millions of their fellow men and women. Without their leadership, sometimes a natural outgrowth of the position they held, sometimes a consequence of their vision or moral courage or hard work, our society would be less humane than it is.

But for that leadership to have its greatest effect, at least some of the leaders must look like the people being led. “Mirror” representation, where the people see themselves in their leaders, is essential to legitimacy and, I believe, to the persistence of change. Otherwise, the improvements are viewed as gifts bestowed by others, rather than rights possessed by virtue of one’s own dignity and effort.

One can become absurdly obsessive about such “mirror” representation concerns, of course. When strict quotas for various attributes are established in order to make a representative group seem perfectly representative, the last few slots can become difficult if not impossible to fill (to illustrate with less sensitive attributes, one might need to find a blue-eyed, left-handed, soccer-playing artist).

One also can overemphasize whatever traits one wishes to “mirror” and neglect equally or even more important attributes. One might, for example, assemble a group that mirrors the community in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and age, and have every one of them be college-educated, or wealthy, or Christian, or from an intact family. Despite their diversity, such a group still would not be “representative” in other important respects.

Of course, one could argue that the only representation that really matters, where policy decisions and implementation are involved, is the representativeness of the decisions themselves. Are all of the various groups treated equitably? Are the policies adopted in the best long- as well as short-term interest of each group? A decision-making body that is a perfect mirror of the community might fail to achieve these goals, and a body that is profoundly unlike the community might do a better job in some cases. Which matters more, what the decision makers look like, or the decisions they make?

I believe that to set this up as either/or, however, is fundamentally false. In part, that is because it is very hard to understand the experience of certain groups if you are not a member of the group and you don’t have close associates who are members of the group. In part, that is because, even if you are serving the interests of a particular group, they may have a hard time believing you are (especially if they have memories of being treated badly by people ‘like you’), and best efforts will fail for lack of trust.

As we may well be seeing in Ferguson, it is unlikely that the police force of any community can, in fact, serve that community well if its officers do not mirror, at least to some meaningful extent (no mere tokenism here), the community they serve.

I don’t know whether the violence in Ferguson reflects failed policies or not. I am certain, however, that the profound lack of mirror representation on the city’s police force must be making this difficult situation worse.

One Response to Reflections on Ferguson: Representation

  • sjsweeney1115

    Very nicely said, Scott! And it’s a shame that in 2014, minorities seem to be nonexistent on the Ferguson, MO police force. I wonder why? I think the answer is more complex than what it seems at first.