The ongoing conversations about the meaning of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed this month by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, have yielded many other conversations that go well beyond police-community relations. It's distressingly familiar, the racial soul-searching prompted by a tragic encounter between a black man and police. Most distressing is how good we've gotten at this in the last twenty years: we hit all the right notes pretty quickly, draw the right conclusions about root causes, and then file it all away in a collective memory that we seem not to even have.
Transforming any of the conversations into public policy is, in this terribly polarized political atmosphere more polarized than ever by race, nearly impossible. Conservatives have gotten very good at pushing back on these discussions, too; the instant they sense any racial soul-searching spreading past the borders of a state or two, they send out the troops to loudly pontificate about personal responsibility, black criminality, and the essential need for law and order under any circumstances, including peaceful protests. It reminds me of how Walmart sends out anti-union troops, like a hazmat team, to quash any talk amongst its employees about joining a union. None of that justice stuff, it pollutes initiative. Better to strive for inclusion rather than actually achieve it.
But inevitably, something comes out of these exhausting discussions that I either hadn't thought of before or needed to rethink. One such thought I've had this time is how big a role class plays in police showdowns, and I mean class within the black community itself. Michael Brown, and Ezell Ford, and Marlene Pinnock in L.A (Ford was shot dead by police in South Central L.A. earlier this month, too, and Pinnock beaten by a bare-knuckled CHP officer on the 10 Freeway in July), plus too many others to mention, are all working-class or lower. (It should be noted, however, that Ferguson is pretty economically diverse.)
While black people of all classes are profiled by police -- our current president and attorney general have confessed to their own experiences -- the most egregious, sometimes fatal profiling happens most often to poorer blacks. Not a surprise.
But the profiling starts at home in the sense that more well-to-do blacks have long looked down on poorer blacks in ways that go beyond class. To many folks in the middle and upper classes, poor blacks are quintessentially ghetto types who embarrass us all with their rough ways, less than perfect English and lack of impulse control (i.e., stealing cigars or a piece of pound cake, as Bill Cosby liked to say). Basically they're just too black for comfort, incapable of assimilating, just as many whites had been predicting about all black folks since the end of slavery. So it is in the '50s and '60s when whites fled a neighborhood that was turning black, as happened in Ferguson and L.A. and lots of other places, blacks with means swiftly followed suit. Leaving wasn't going to make you any more white, but you could at least put some distance between you and the social pariahs. You could at least improve your own profile.
Ferguson reminds me that such distance is false assurance and always has been. The good news is that the distance hasn't meant a complete divorce between black haves and have-nots, or, as I like to say, the have-less. Despite having been abandoned, black Ferguson residents seem somewhere between middle class and poor -- neither ghetto nor elite, neither down-and-out nor professionals like the Huxtables. Economically and culturally they're a mix, and they all recognize injustice when they see it. Which means that Ferguson is actually very much like Inglewood, where I live. We are also a largely black community with economics that range from slightly upper middle class on the high end to Section 8 renters on the low. But we've all been uniformly outraged by too many incidents of police brutality, many of them fatal, largely involving young black men with dubious prospects for full inclusion. Those young men are ours, somebody's child or grandchild or brother. Somebody that we know.