Ferguson and America

by Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW

The live feeds from CNN showing the looting and vandalism following the Grand Jury decision not to charge the Ferguson police officer, who killed Michael Brown, were very disturbing to say the least.  It is very unfortunate that a small minority of protestors and residents choose to ignore the appeals of the Brown family and engage in these destructive activities.

These images of the looting and vandalism unfortunately will validate preconceived notions of minority youth and residents among many Americans.

However what is hardly ever portrayed on CNN or any other media is the day to day profiling and indignities suffered by communities of color throughout this country.  I recently taught a MSW policy class at George Williams College and designed one class on race.  I asked students to prepare for the class by doing the following: 1) Listen to Barack Obama’s speech on race, 2) Read “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and 3) Read Revered Alex Gee’s “Justified Anger” article printed in The Capital Times.  In his article Reverend Gee discussed the racial profiling he has experienced as a middle class African American minister in Madison, even being stopped by police as a crime suspect in his own church parking lot.  Coates’s article discussed the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws on African American families today.  It also discussed the systematic denial of housing loans for African American families who were forced to obtain land contracts, often designed in a way that led to foreclosure.  It also discussed blockbusting and restrictive deeds, which prevented African Americans from moving into middle class neighborhoods (The deed for my parents’ home in Golden Valley, Minnesota actually said that this home can only be sold to white Anglo Saxon Protestant Americans!).

The white students in my class were appalled and ashamed about what they learned from the Coates’s article in particular.  What was most illuminating, however, was when the African American students, all “returning students” began discussing their day to day experience today.  One African American female student discussed how angry she is that she cannot go into a store without being followed around by store personnel, a very common experience for African American residents.  The male African American MSW student discussed being stopped by police officers so many times he lost count, being questioned by police officers when he is stopped in his car between his work appointments and how he is often followed by a police officer who he observes is writing down his license to do a check on him.  He said he has learned where not to drive in Milwaukee County as an African American man.

About thirteen years ago, my first cousin in St. Louis adopted an African American child who I will call Isaac.  Isaac is gregarious, has tons of friends and is gifted in math.  He attends a very prestigious private school. When he was in his first preschool, however, he was identified as a “problem” child with special needs.  My cousin asked one of her African American female friends what to do and she said, “Welcome to my world!  Take him out of that school immediately!”

Aside from these day to day indignities are the systematic issues faced by communities of color in our country and state.  Wisconsin has some of the worst racial disparities in the United States for African American residents, whether it is in educational achievement, corrections, health status, infant mortality or life span.  

There are no easy answers to any of these issues, many of which were discussed in the Town Hall Meeting at our 2014 Annual Conference.  However as social workers we need to educate ourselves, continue learning about the lived experiences of people different than ourselves and advocate for public policies that can help the racial and ethnic disparities that permeate our society.   Let’s hope that the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing and that of other young people of color in the country can lead to soul searching and concerted action to address the racial and ethnic disparities and other systematic issues in our country.

Gee, Reverend Alex, “Justified Anger” in The Capital Times, December 18, 2013

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, May 21, 2014