August 18, 2014

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.