In the wake of the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, I’ve seen thoughtful commentators trying their best to do two things. On the one hand, they want to listen carefully to our African American neighbors who experience racial prejudice in their interface with law enforcement and with the criminal justice system. They want to give due regard to systemic racial inequality that still exists in our country. On the other hand, they also want to be fair in their evaluation of Michael Brown’s death and how his death relates to the overall racial disparity in our criminal justice system.
This has been a difficult balance to strike in the wake of events in Ferguson. Some have insisted that Michael Brown’s death is “Exhibit A” of the larger systemic issues in our country. Furthermore, they insist that failure to treat Brown’s death as an exemplar of those issues is a failure of racial sensitivity. And herein is the impasse: Not that people deny the existence of larger systemic issues, but that the shooting of Michael Brown must be viewed as an example of it. Emotions run high as all the pathos of our nation’s original sin come to the surface in these kinds of discussions. And that is why the discussion is so difficult. That is also why evangelicals have even found themselves divided on the matter.
Nevertheless, there are a growing number who are resisting the idea that Brown’s death is an exemplar of the valid grievances voiced by African Americans. Just yesterday, Charles Barkley announced that his view on Ferguson had changed after he heard some of the grand jury testimony. Barkley says he now believes that Darren Wilson acted properly in defending himself. Likewise, Joe Scarborough argued forcefully yesterday that Brown’s shooting should not be the rallying point for otherwise valid grievances. Earlier today Ross Douthat put a fine point on it:
We will never know exactly what happened in the shooting of Michael Brown, but at this point the preponderance of the available evidence suggests that this case is at the very least too ambiguous, and quite possibly too exculpatory of the officer involved, to effectively illustrate a systemic indictment of police conduct.
Likewise, John McWhorter has argued that “Ferguson Is the Wrong Tragedy to Wake America Up.” McWhorter recognizes that there was a justified “preset hostility” that led to the confrontation between Brown and Wilson, and that hostility was unambiguously racial in nature. Nevertheless, he writes,
As someone who has written in ardent sympathy with the Ferguson protests, I find this hard to write, but I have decided that it would be dishonest of me to hold back. As I have written endlessly, America will never get past race without a profound change in how police forces relate to black men. However, I’m not sure that what happened to Michael Brown — and the indictment that did not happen to Officer Darren Wilson — is going to be useful as a rallying cry about police brutality and racism in America…
We are told that this tragic sequence of actions shows that America “devalues black bodies,” as a common phrasing has it. But I fear the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson…
Beyond the converted, the less committed observer will see the facts piling up and conclude that one can be fully aware of racism’s persistence and yet still feel that the part racism played in Brown’s death is too abstract to qualify as a Selma-style — or even Trayvon-style — teaching moment… Aren’t other deaths that have grieved us more useful in teaching a vast nation of people, with various levels of understanding and concern, that we have a serious problem here?
What happened to Diallo, Martin, Crawford, and also Oscar Grant is a clearer demonstration of what faces us than what happened in Ferguson. People don’t like being told to ignore facts; even fewer find ambiguity a spark for indignation… I mourn Brown as we all do, but I worry that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up.
I don’t know that I have anything earth-shattering to contribute to this discussion. And perhaps I’m foolish for trying. But I am looking for ways to be helpful. And I want to hold out hope that maybe evangelicals in particular might reach some rapprochement and not be continually divided from one another over Ferguson. To that end, I wonder if we might consider some guidelines for ongoing discussions:
(1) Can we agree not to make condemning Darren Wilson the litmus test for racial sensitivity? The preponderance of evidence in this particular case is at the very least too ambiguous and probably too exculpatory to merit the condemnation that has been heaped on this officer. Unless some other evidence comes to light, it doesn’t make sense to make condemning Wilson a condition for dialogue and fellowship among brothers.
(2) Can we agree to listen carefully to African American brothers and sisters in their experience of racial prejudice? No matter what your opinion of the grand jury verdict, these concerns are real and need a hearing. You don’t have to have an opinion about the Ferguson grand jury verdict in order to be genuinely concerned about the larger racial issues that still bedevil our nation.
(3) Can we agree together that the violent looting of Ferguson was an unvarnished evil that has no justification whatsoever, no matter what your view of the grand jury’s verdict? For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:20).
It matters both what we say and how we say it in conversations like this one. If you have any other constructive suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I for one welcome any insight on how we might better do those things that make for peace.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever.