Events like the complete civic breakdown in Ferguson, Missouri, inevitably get shoved through political filters. They play out before a polarized public, often through ideological intermediaries, and become the responsibility of elected officials. They draw on community resources and are subject to second guessing by agenda-driven people watching from the sidelines.
But if you pass Ferguson through a political filter, what comes out the other end is completely incoherent. Ferguson is situated in St. Louis County, one of only three Missouri counties President Obama won in 2012. But Ferguson has a Republican mayor, while the state of Missouri has a Democratic governor. Said governor, Jay Nixon, has been roundly criticized for sitting on his hands as Ferguson descended into chaos, and Obama, perhaps wary of inflaming tensions, issued a remarkably tepid response to the unrest days after it began.
They managed to get outflanked on the left not just by less powerful Democrats but also by people vying to lead the Republican party, most notably Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. His Time Magazine op-ed included a few ham-fisted phrases meant to construe police brutality as a symptom of “big government”—an ill most conservatives view as synonymous with providing too much aid to residents of cities like Ferguson. But unlike Obama, he attributed the violence against civilians to police militarization, or some other derivative of the “m” word, eight times, and to race several more.
His core analytical error was a failure to connect the two more directly.
When you pass Ferguson through a racial rather than political filter, a much more consistent picture emerges, both with respect to the unrest itself and to its place within a broader social context.
You’ve probably seen the statistics by now. Ferguson is about two-thirds black. It’s police force is nearly 100 percent white. Less than a third of its residents are white, but whites hold five of Ferguson’s six city council seats.
When the black community in a city like Ferguson loses faith in its police force, and the police respond by crushing the community’s civil and constitutional rights, it isn’t a stretch to say that the white ruling class has created de facto apartheid. Probably temporarily, perhaps without segregationist intent. But functionally, that’s what it is. They’ve also denied the people they serve the services to which they’re entitled. Ferguson’s police department commands a third of the city’s budget and they are using those resources to provide aggressive disservice to the people who finance that budget.
Ferguson presents an unusually extreme and condensed example of this sort of racial-civic polarization. But you can find expressions of the same basic dynamic—of white public officials using their power to socially weaken black constituents—all across the country.
“Overall,” according to the ACLU, “42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black,” and yet black people comprise just over 12 percent of the national population.
Though not explicitly violent, voter suppression efforts in southern (and non-southern, GOP-controlled) states constitute a much broader and more insidious exercise of state power along the same racial axis. The politicians passing those laws are overwhelmingly white, the affected constituencies are heavily black. And the consequence is that black citizens everywhere, like black residents of Ferguson this week, become ill equipped to advance their interests before their political leaders. (Shifting back to an explicitly political frame for a moment, Rand Paul’s intrusions on this score have been less inspiring. Back in May, Paul briefly chastised his party for obsessing over voter IDs law on the pragmatic rather than principled grounds that it is ultimately counterproductive. Within a week, he’d reversed himself.)
The strong resistance southern state governments have shown to the Affordable Care Act’s (essentially free) Medicaid expansion (which the Supreme Court made purely optional in 2012) reflects a similar act of discretion by lily-white elites at the expense of disproportionately black constituents.
Proliferating open-carry and Stand Your Ground laws are also nominally colorblind phenomena, but ones that effectively heighten racial disparities in homicide convictions and promote a cultural undercurrent of white vigilantism. The same forces operating in reverse allow a group of well-armed, white anti-government reactionaries in Nevada to ward off federal law officers seeking to enforce grazing laws, and generate a tremendous amount of solidarity.
What happened in Ferguson is a national disgrace. But it was also abrupt and characterized by astounding incompetence. Those ingredients will allow order to be restored and hopefully create the scrutiny required for a thorough reckoning, from the killing of Michael Brown through the changing of the guard Thursday afternoon. But that scrutiny is unlikely to extend past the city limits of Ferguson. And that is a national disgrace as well.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.