Illuminating the Fergusons Deep Down Inside

Monday, March 16, 2015 - 11:00
Paul Vandeventer on race, bias and Ferguson

Of all the sorrows humanity has inherited short of murder and war, ignorant, ingrained racial hatred challenges communities and society as a whole to take stock of both our civic culture and our very essence as civil beings. Few realities reveal this sorry truth more pointedly than the sad pattern of official behavior laid out in the U.S. Department of Justice’s two reports released March 4 on race, bias and policing in Ferguson, Missouri.

According to the report, if you’re black and find yourself in Ferguson, you’re about 30 percent more likely than anyone of a different race to be stopped by a cop, arrested, cited, or fined. There’s an equally disproportionate chance you’ll be charged with “crimes” that are questionable at best and, at worst, outright excuses for police to assert out-sized race-based control. Anyone who understands places like Ferguson where many people live at or near poverty levels also knows that police-citizen contact leads with unfortunate haste to violent confrontation. Just look at recently reported data about police shootings in downtown Los Angeles. Skid Row, home to a large portion of L.A.’s destitute throngs, has the highest rate of officer-involved incidents (including shootings and use of force) of anyplace in our metropolis of 3.7 million people, with three incidents per every 10,000 residents since 2000. Bad as those numbers are, they come from police data sources. Our local newspaper and activist groups have stepped up to shed light on the problem, including the well-respected Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Though usually focused on analyzing unreported deaths in areas of conflict around the world, the Community Partners sponsored project has issued a critique of recent Dept. of Justice statistics.

Fortunately, police behaviors and attitudes have both shifted for the better here since the days when Daryl Gates was LA’s police chief. No longer does the LAPD overtly consider its officers on a war footing with people in largely black and poor communities. Instead, police practices have improved over the years, particularly under current Chief Charlie Beck who models an innate personal humility and decency alongside concern for his two children who are police officers like him. We can point also to years of judicial oversight that spawned needed leadership squirming and civic shame.

I am not naïve enough to think the job of police reform in LA is anywhere near done. We are extraordinarily fortunate that people like Patrisse Cullors are leading the way on the frontlines. Her Dignity & Power Now, a project under fiscal sponsorship with Community Partners, has been tenacious -- and finally victorious -- in their call for a Citizen Review Board for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. It is only continuous vigilance and commitment like this that will ever succeed in embedding changed behavior and attitudes in the firmament of police and civic culture.

Yet, if the modicum of change we’ve seen in complicated, sprawling Los Angeles can happen in all the places like Ferguson, we may still have a glimmer of hope as a civil society.

Ferguson’s unfortunate, though possibly grace-saving fate, has been to become the Watts of the early 21st Century, a comparative benchmark by which all future action will be judged. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder characterized the atmosphere surrounding blacks in Ferguson and members of the police force there as nothing less than a “highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment.” The commission investigating the causes of the Watts riots in the 1960s concluded much the same thing.

One thing we could use here in Los Angeles is institutional resolve to embed the fundamentals of intentional civility – trust, tolerance of difference, reciprocity, caring, looking out for the other guy – in the practices and culture of every social, economic, governmental and cultural institution. We could do more in police practice to learn from the emerging science underlying “implicit racial bias” upon which police training programs in several cities have been built. Our universities can now step beyond turning out young folks steeped in the social entrepreneurial ethos of “private action for the public good.” They need to focus attention on turning the next several generations of graduates into “new mutualists,” a term suggestive of the values at the core of intentional civility.

  • New mutualist leadership would remain ever cognizant of our primitive brain wiring that produces implicit racial bias and causes us to crudely group people and treat them according to often-negative preconceptions and stereotypes. 
  • New mutualism institutionalized in government and policing agencies would produce at least a partial antidote to the dark governing ethos of Ferguson that has permitted the rotten fist of official racial bias to rule for so long. 
  • Mutualist leaders would combine ethical compassion, sociological insight, and management savvy with a profound and deferential appreciation for the capacity of people in communities to determine their own destiny. They would have a penchant for rooting out or heading off civic pathologies by lighting and holding high the guiding lamp of informed public policy. 
  • Government’s job in the hands of new mutualists would be to combine good data with actual community experience and integrate neuroscience’s recent discoveries into a truthful local narrative before pathology becomes vicious behavior and enduring bad attitudes. 

Our unfortunate heritage as a country is to contend always and forever with the cruel legacy of slavery. Any sentient American would be hard-pressed to deny that Ferguson exists in too many of our cities, towns and rural outposts. Intentional civility practiced by a new generation of mutualists could possibly illuminate with a cleansing sunshine the Fergusons deep down, buried and begging for a cure in our beating, hopeful national heart.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo, CC by 2.0 license