This is the last in a series of reflections prompted by events in Ferguson, Mo.
I often listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on my commute to work. So it was, this week, that I heard a series of interviews with residents of Ferguson, Mo., who were, generally, not involved in the demonstrations. The piece, by Shereen Marisol Meraji, was one of those well-crafted walk-around-town pieces that mix the comments of ordinary folks with the sounds of their daily lives and the observations of the interviewer. Ms. Meraji served as tour guide, introducing us to each resident, and also providing descriptions of the bits of local color that helped our imaginations “see” the town of Ferguson and its people.
We heard these Ferguson residents speak of what was happening in their community, not only in their own words, but in their own accents.
What we didn’t hear, what we couldn’t see, and what Ms. Meraji didn’t tell us, was the race of the interviewees.
Indeed, the only reference to race came at the very end of the interview. The last interviewee we met, Robert Ware (a philosophy professor from the neighboring town of Clayton), said that he had been attending the protests “to show solidarity with black people locally and to show that white people care about these problems and they affect white people too.”
On the one hand, one could say that this was a nice journalistic move. Don’t tell the listener the race of the interviewees. Let them guess, or, just maybe, let them not think about race at all.
Except that, like it or not, race matters.
Because Michael Brown was a young black man and the officer who shot him was white. Because the officer who pointed a semi-automatic rifle at some demonstrators late Tuesday evening, threatening, with expletives added, to kill one or more of them, was white. Because the police department of Ferguson, a town with a majority African-American population, is super-majority white.
Because the exercise of legitimated power by white authorities against black men evokes memories, personal and cultural, that rise unbidden (or welcomed) in the minds and guts of most of us alive today.
Unbidden . . . or welcomed.
It matters whether the interviewee who asserted that those who don’t vote don’t get “all the gifts of our society” was a white man or a black man. It matters whether the mom with the little toddler in tow who wanted “it all just . . . to be done and over with” was a white woman or a black woman. It matters whether the gentleman who asserted that the local leaders “ought to be taking a stronger stand” was a white man or a black man.
Because this conflict is, in part, about race. About our memories of race and racial conflicts.
It’s also about the extent to which, when members of a minority group (or women, regardless of minority status) look at the world around them, they see particular patterns of representation. It’s about the reality, still today, that they look at those with power over them, they often see patterns that suggest disregard and discrimination.
So, like it or not, because we “see” race, we must deal with race, and how race colors our experience of the world.