In wake of Ferguson decision, it’s time to open dialogue about race

Claire Smith

I don’t know if the grand jury investigation into former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s actions in shooting and killing Mike Brown was a sham. A big part of me thinks it was. I don’t think that the flood of more than a thousand pages of documents to the grand jury was reasonable. In fact, I think it was a debilitating hindrance for those responsible for drawing meaning from the chaos of Aug. 9. I don’t think that the lack of diversity of the members of the grand jury created the greatest opportunity for justice to be served. Furthermore, its composition of nine white members and three black members certainly didn’t put the watching masses in a position to trust its decision. These factors have greatly swayed my view of the grand jury’s proceedings, but I remain unresolved for one important reason: I don’t believe that anyone knows what actually happened when Michael Brown met Darren Wilson because of the abundance of conflicting testimonies from eyewitnesses whose words could have had sovereign power, if only they had all said the same thing. In that regard, at least, the proceedings of the grand jury undoubtedly failed. I wish I knew if the grand jury of Darren Wilson saw justice served, but I don’t. Whether in the riots that followed the grand jury’s decision or in the courtroom itself, I think people are working for the interests of their own group when we should be working together.

I don’t believe that Michael Brown deserved to die because he shoplifted a pack of cigarillos and assaulted the store clerk, a charge that has been laid against those who, like me, continue to question exactly what happened that day. Many have argued that Wilson should not have shot to kill, a heavy-handed charge on the coattails of the irrefutable fact that there is too much police brutality. If it was a fight to the death, as Wilson asserted, I couldn’t agree that he shouldn’t have exercised his maximum potential for self-defense. But I do believe that Brown’s fate was written the minute he reached for Wilson’s gun, and that’s because our society has empowered the police to make that decision time and again. Herein lies the true problem with which our society must wrestle as we move forward.

I don’t believe that the riots in Ferguson are about Michael Brown. I believe that the crowd’s rage is about a deeper problem in America that the crowd is responding to — maybe an institutional problem or a social problem, but probably both. A mob does not decide someone’s innocence or guilt; a jury does. I believe that owing to a mix of past social and institutional grievances, the crowd isn’t able to trust the legitimacy of the grand jury’s decision. Such widespread civilian suspicion is formidable. The law is supposed to serve and protect all of its citizens. It is a powerful systemic failure when citizens can’t believe that it does.

So why aren’t we talking about it? A true dialogue about race in America isn’t taking place in an instance that demonstrates a tremendous need for it, just fumbling narratives by newscasters wrestling with the affair’s complexity and radio silence from American leadership. It’s no secret that America’s legacy of subordination of minorities has created an atmosphere in which whites and minority groups cannot talk frankly about contemporary race relations. Living in the 21st century, it is remarkable that it persists but the burn of Ferguson’s riots and national rage is a blistering reminder of how closed off racial groups in America are to each other. As a white woman, in the face of so much rage because of the injustices and harm that my racial group has caused, I feel, and have been made to feel by my peers, that I am not entitled to have an opinion and certainly not entitled to express it. That feeling, which I am sure has been experienced by members of every racial group in America, will perpetuate inter-community silence, which is a tremendous danger to our collective future. The riots in Ferguson as well as Dallas and Austin are a polarizing force. They have a destructive capacity far greater than any quantifiable damage in the riots themselves. The rage of the rioting and silencing capacity of white guilt has closed the conversation before it could even start. For whatever reason, American leadership has allowed a legitimate dialogue to stay unhad, but we can’t let it continue. We have a dire need to understand the mistakes happening every day, every hour. We have a desperate need to fix them so that we are never faced with the ethical quagmire of Michael Brown’s shooting and Darren Wilson’s questionable grand jury again. But we aren’t having that conversation.

I am mad about what’s going on in my country. I am not mad at the rioters — my feeling would be better characterized as profound disappointment at the squandering of finite American sympathy — but I am furious at the continuation of a racial war that Americans have too much heart and promise to let continue. I am ashamed of what’s happening in my country. I am sad. But most importantly, no matter your color or mine, I am with you. Let me show you. Let’s talk.

Smith is a history junior from Austin.