#Ferguson. Hear the black man’s cry. Our cry.

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 12 Comments

If we’re going to talk about the national outrage called Ferguson, we must include certain key facts — information that isn’t getting enough play in the news media.

The race-and-politics numbers are depressing

  • Two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are black.
  • The mayor is white. Five out of six City Council members who run Ferguson are white.
  • The city has 53 police officers. Only three are black.
  • Citizens of all races don’t care much about voting. Voter turnout in the last mayoral election was 12 percent.

This information is from a very good New York Times story. But is was buried in the middle of a lot of news out of Ferguson. Seems to me that these statistics point to foundational issues that need to be addressed.

A police body camera would have made a difference

What really happened when an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white cop?

If only we had a video of the altercation — and a video could have been possible.

More police departments are adding a body camera to the police officer’s uniform, according to a Wall Street Journal story

body camera

The cameras cost $399 to $599 apiece. In places where cops wear the cameras, citizen complaints are down. This says something about accountability, doesn’t it? Big city police departments like New Orleans, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are trying them out on a limited basis. (Note: no mention of NYC in the Journal story).

Before the incident, Ferguson had already budgeted $5,000 to buy some dashboard cameras and body cameras but they are not yet in use, reports the Journal. Oh, if only there had been a camera. 

Ferguson is reflection of social issues that impact us all 

I’ve recently discovered the author bell hooks, a black woman, activist and feminist who does not use capital letters in her name. Right now, I’m reading We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, which was published in 2004.

Her running theme is the consequences black men face in patriarchal America, where fathers, father figures and men in general — especially white men — are in charge. hooks’ analysis is not about blaming the victim but about understanding why society is so messed up.

I am especially moved by her chapter entitled, “from angry boys to angry men,”  because it reminds me of the factors working against the success of black men. The chapter opens with this thought:

Young black males, like all boys in a patriarchal culture, learn early that manhood is synonymous with the domination and control over others, that simply by being male they are in a position of authority that gives them the right to assert their will over others, to use coercion and/or violence to gain and maintain power…Black boys are daily victimized by toxic shaming. In our culture there is very little concern about the emotional lives of black boys.

hooks cites many reasons for these issues. The problems include how many black families operate:

Black boys, more than any other group of male children in this society, are asked to surrender their childhoods in order to pursue an elusive patriarchal masculinity. Often this demand is made by a dysfunctional single female parent who has had all her expectations of being cared for and protected by a patriarchal male dashed; a disappointing father, a betraying love, both are part of her abandonment issues. She then projects them onto the son who she hopes will fulfill all her desires. These unrealistic emotional expectations result in “emotional sexual abuse”….

hooks said she saw the conflicts in her own family, within her own brother: “Like many black boys, he received mixed messages about manhood.”

She goes on to say that black men are taught that it’s not masculine or powerful to grieve or weep or show pain — unless it’s a funeral.

There’s a great shout-out in the chapter to John Bradshaw, an educator and counselor who is white. In his book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, he talks about the “soul murdering” that goes on when children are emotionally battered.

These kids who lose their confidence, joy and creativity survive by showing the world a false self that enables them to carry on. Inside though, they are overcome by “toxic shame.”

…Soul-murdering attacks on the self-esteem of black boys leads many gifted black male children to develop deep-seated chronic depression, resulting from what Bradshaw diagnoses as a consequence of their “true and authentic selves being shamed through abandonment in childhood…”

…Repression is one of the ways to cope with the pain of abandonment. When small, black boys are often overly indulged, made to feel, both special and entitled, they may not learn any boundaries. Emotinally abused black boys are filled with rage. Rage is the perfect cover-up for depression. Lack of self-esteem — the consequence of psychological wounding in early childhood — is the heart of the matter. And when those wounds are not healed they invariably lead to self-sabotage.

She goes on to quote Donald Dutton, also white, who is a domestic violence expert and author of “The Batterer: A Psychological Profile:”

After breaking through the wall of denial black males who seek healing must do the work of grieving. They must, like all wounded males, “mourn the loss of what was never attained and attempt to integrate the good and bad aspects of what is still possible,” as Dutton suggests. He points out that most men refuse to acknowledge deep childhood losses, and that ‘male models for grieving are few.’

There’s no question that what’s going on in Ferguson right now is going to leave scars, with much grieving to be done. The assault on the community from all sides just isn’t right. But thankfully, hooks wraps up the chapter by holding out some hope. This is where I am wishing that we can pick up the discussion:

Wounded black men can heal. The healing process requires that they break through denial, feel what they feel, and tell the truth… As black males courageously confront the pain in their lives, facing reality, they can take the broken bits and pieces and make themselves whole again.

I think what bell hooks says about wounded black men also applies to wounded people of any color, gender or sexual identity. For sure, her take on the consequences of personal rage hits home for me.

She’s getting me think about Ferguson and race issues in a personal light. That’s why I’m sharing this post. If more of us can feel personally invested in what’s going on, we can find our way to power. I rarely blog about political issues but I disturbed by the recent incidents involving law enforcement officers shooting and roughing up unarmed black folks, especially black men. It’s time to get more involved. So here I am, in a new beginning.

What about you?

Note: Parents, please read and share my earlier post: How NOT to get arrested in NYC. Male teens of color are particularly vulnerable but the guidelines apply to everyone, not just the young. The post is written by my guest blogger, criminal lawyer Alan Gordon, who works for Legal Aid. He once represented a young person arrested for carrying a weapon — a bag of empty soda cans in the car. Yes. He explains stuff that every one of us, especially parents, should know.

Comments 12

  1. Thank you for a very informative blog on the subject of black boys and black men. The fact that most black women do not marry the fathers of their children nor do the fathers hang around to father the children (or if they do it’s to batter the women and children) cannot escape any of us. I feel that it’s a hold over from the slave days when children were sold or mothers and fathers separated and sold. We, as a nation, broke up their families and changed their culture to something they themselves weren’t exactly satisfied with but through generations of enslavement (if they lived that long) they came to accept it as the “black way of life.” I’ve noticed changes with Obama becoming president both with the way blacks see themselves (men and women) and the way the rest of us see blacks. However, the police have continued to have a grand old time (small or big cities) harassing and demeaning young and old black men and because no one felt powerful enough to come together against them. It’s currently continued to outright killing of young black men as well as some older ones with itchy fingered cops and neighborhood watch. BTW, the name on your blog for the policeman does not match the one broadcast the last few days. Isn’t it Darren Wilson or some similar name? Are they not even releasing the real name of the policeman involved? Time for an overhaul of our police hiring as well as our legal system. The media could stand some censorship as well!

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      Sandy, thank goodness you’re reading my posts. Yes, you’re right, the name of the officer is Darren Wilson. I just fixed it.

      The other thing about black families is that the separation of fathers from the families has been reinforced in the 20th century too. Back when I was in college in the late ’70s, I took a black studies class where the professor explained that public assistance was given to single moms; men had to be absent or not be an official presence in order for poor women to get financial help from the government. I don’t know how that works now but if anyone has insight on the system, please share.

      And it’s the body camera that intrigues me. What if we had those here in NYC? Would the police act differently, especially when dealing with people of color?

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    I just listened to a great segment on NPR about training police officers to deal with confrontations and potentially troubled people in new ways. This program is specifically about not arresting mentally ill folks while getting them off the streets AND reducing police overtime costs. While this isn’t the issue in Ferguson right now, I found the thoughtful, humane approach to finding answers very heartening.


  3. I think we must take care when generalizing about black fathers. As a group.they are frequently assumed to be abusive, irresponsible and absent. However, I know personally many working and middle class black fathers who are exemplary in their family lives – my next door neighbors for one example and my colleagues at college for more examples. The best example known to me is my own wonderful husband Mike.
    Here in Trenton, the political situation is the reverse of Ferguson. The city power structure is almost entirely black and reflects the population, which is more than half of color. I’m afraid it has not produced the millennium just yet. A significant part of our city’s problems stems from an ingrained “ghetto” culture of expected failure and anti-intellectualism. While the city leadership works against this, it is a hard nut to crack. Our youngest adopted son Matty, who still lives with us, worked for the college this past Summer in a mentoring program for inner city high school kids. He recounted an incident in which a very bright and promising girl in the program was being encouraged to apply for college. One day her mother came in to see the head of the program and said “you all can just knock off this college BS. Ain’t nobody in our family ever gone to no college and she ain’t no better than the rest of us!” What can one say when faced with a cultural gap of such enormous proportions? We can speculate at length on the origins of this sort of attitude (and it is, I think, an extreme example) but variations of it are a fact of life that must somehow be overcome in places like Trenton – and Ferguson as well, I expect.

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    Toby, thank you for pointing the danger of generalizing. It’s always a problem. As for the woman who didn’t want her kid to go to college, I don’t know if this was a black mom, but I’ve heard resistance from parents of all races. Parenting is hard. Hard for parents to open their minds to their children’s dreams and potentials.

    I was married for 18 years to a man who is black. It opened my eyes to the inexcusable crap that black folks put up with. Most of us don’t realize how real racism is and that the legacy of slavery is still alive. But as bell hooks says, black folks — all folks — have an individual responsibility to uplift ourselves. We can do it, one life at a time.

  5. I think – to put it more precisely – the facts, which are in abundance, have failed to make an impression on the public, white and non-white, because the narratives in their brains have been embedded there for years.

    Cops-kill-black-men-for-no-reason, he-was-a-thug-who-deserved-to-die, it’s-all-obama’s-fault (the fox news explanation).

    Sure, race is relevant as a matter of public policy (how, for example, should a municipal police department in a black town be run?) but NOT as a matter of crime and punishment in this one case.

    I think we can all agree that the shooter resorted to a disproportionate response in an emotionally fraught situation (the shooter was armed; the dead man wasn’t).

    Whether the shooter feared for his life or was acting to save the life of another (hard to imagine because the dead man, everyone agrees, was unarmed) is a mitigating factor (maybe).

    Whether the shooter suffered an injury or some disorientation in an altercation that affected his judgment and affected his ability to control his firearm is a mitigating factor (maybe).

    Why is anything else relevant as to whether the shooter ought to be punished or not?

    And notice above that race doesn’t have to be used as a descriptor.

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  6. For a LEO to empty his gun against an unarmed person is despicable and disgusting– and the policy/training of most American police departments of the cop feels threatened. Police are trained to shoot first, and ask questions later. (or in some cases, cover their tracks later). But here’s how things are done in the country that invented the Gestapo:

    But i wouldn’t give the black community a complete pass, if we are ever to move forward. They need to at least organize themselves and vote for leaders who will be responsive to their needs, and then go on a national campaign to recruit black police officers.

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      Dan, thanks. These are two really good links. And nobody gets a pass on what’s going on. Everyone shares responsibility. I also think people have to realize that changing the faces of power white to black doesn’t instantly make things right either. Your second link has a professor who points out that the area is filled with other Fergusons, majority-black neighborhoods run by whites. And your first link focuses on America’s (relatively) trigger-happy law enforcement gun culture. These are both deep, deep systemic issues.

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    News update: Body cameras are coming to the NYPD: http://nyti.ms/1lF4UR1

    For anyone who thinks Ferguson is a black-white issue, here is one Asian American angle: http://nyti.ms/WlrVMD

    Ferguson has a housing crisis, with half of the town’s 6,321 homeowners underwater. This means they owe more on their houses than the homes are worth. Alarming, since 17% of homes nationally are underwater.

    Investment companies are snapping up foreclosed and troubled homes, including Raineth Housing. Since 2011, this company has bought 5% of these Ferguson properties — 72 homes. The owners are Edward Renwick and his wife, Dehua Chen, who, the Times say, live in an “upscale” Los Angeles suburb. Her brother, Detang Jay Chen, is also a partner.

    They are renting out the homes to mostly low income, single moms, many on public assistance. These are poor folk living in houses that were mostly built more than 50 years ago and often left in disrepair following white flight. The Times says tenants give Raineth mixed grades. And when it comes to making basic repairs and renovations, the local county housing authority rates Raineth among the “bottom third” of the landlords who get rent subsidies. Not good.

    We have seen in L.A. and N.Y. what happens when Asian American entrepreneurs operate in other predominantly black nabes (Ferguson is two-thirds black and one-third white).

    I applaud Raineth Housing for agreeing to an interview with the New York Times on this important story. It’s good to hear that they want to be responsible landlords. So please, let’s do our best to be responsible to our collective community. There is too much at stake.

  8. Thanks for sharing this, Betty. I appreciate you bringing another lens to view the ongoing story in Ferguson. That’s not something I would have considered on my own and insight makes such a difference in our worldviews.

    I saw on the news this morning the cameras you mentioned. They’re being tested in Brooklyn.

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    Skye, the Times story focused on just this one investment company. But there are others. They’re buying up Ferguson homes, which is becoming a place for renters and not homeowners. What will this mean?

    As for those cop cameras, thanks for letting me know they’re going to Brooklyn. I can’t wait to see what happens in a borough that is prime stop-and-frisk territory. Thanks for stopping by! xo

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