Racism and the Police: The Shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson

Systematic racism has been made evident again in the shooting of an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Pulling stories directly from recent news headlines is one way to get students’ attention and demonstrate the abundant relevance of the sociological perspective. The New York Times has a timeline of the events that serves as a useful starting point (from the mainstream media) to share the events with students that may have not kept up with the story.

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The community of Ferguson, Missouri (the site of the shooting) has responded with on-going mass protests.

Ferguson cannot be understood in a vacuum. These events are rich with sociological issues –  inequality and poverty, racial profiling, the militarization of the police, protester and police interaction, social media (#Ferguson and hashtag activism) and the “criminalization of Black male youth”.

Looking first at the disproportionate levels of poverty and subsequent exclusion from the economy of many Blacks in the US, Brookings, a Democratic leaning think tank, analyzed census tract data of changes in the poverty rates in Ferguson (and the surrounding area) between 2000 and 2008-2012.  They state:

“But Ferguson has also been home to dramatic economic changes in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent in 2010-12. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of the decade.

Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2010-2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one in four residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level.”

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The community of Ferguson, one of many that have been disproportionally hurt by the economic downturn, has experienced long term poverty, and this undoubtably was part of the mass frustration that contributed to the emergence of the protests. See Brookings web site for their full story.

However, the key grievance that seems to have inspired mass protest is the relationship between the police and the community. In previous posts I have explored the disproportionate number of Blacks incarcerated, arrested for drugs, and racially profiled under programs such as “Stop and Frisk”. While the population of Ferguson is 63% Black, 90% of the police officers are White. As noted by the New York Times (see below), Blacks in Ferguson are disproportionally stopped and arrested by the predominantly White police force.

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An FBI and federal justice department investigation is on-going and reports of the events present conflicting stories – an eye witness that was with the victim at the time says Michael had his hands up, but slowly emerging (which certainly adds to the distrust) police accounts argue that an unarmed Michael was in a confrontation with the officer. The job of the police is to make arrests and allow a court system to decide guilt. The police later released images from a video of a suspect robbing a convenience store (no weapons were used). Let’s just say it was Michael (that would still have to be proven). A police officer should be able to subdue a suspect without shooting him six times. In essence, (presuming guilt instead of innocence) Michael was sentenced to death for supposedly stealing a handful of cigars.

The police responses to the protests in Ferguson have exposed the results of the militarization of municipal police forces. Images of police in full military gear, helmets, armored vehicles, sharp-shooters, high caliber weaponry, and military fatigues certainly garnered the attention of the media.

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The distribution of military weaponry to local police departments began after the terrorist attacks of September 11th under the guise of preparing communities for foreign attacks. Now we see this weaponry and accompanying tactics used in our own communities. The saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail” comes to mind.

This weaponry has been widely distributed.

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Click on the map above to have students go to an interactive version that allows them to see the distribution of the weaponry in their county. For example, I can see that in Cook county, home to my city of residence, Chicago, the police have obtained over 1200 assault rifles and even three “mine resistant” vehicles.

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The use of these weapons and tactics is not limited to Ferguson. In June of 2014, the ACLU published the following report:

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 12.54.43 PMIn it they report the increased use of SWAT tactics for search warrants for low level drug investigations and that the “militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies” (p.3). These tactics and mentality have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including infants and children (see the report for numerous stories).

Do these tactics pay off? According to the ACLU’s research, the majority of the time they do not. Drugs are only found about a third of the time.

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And these tactics are used disproportionately in cases involving racial and ethnic minority suspects.

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So, was this an isolated event among two individuals – the officer and Michael Brown? No. Sociologically, the impoverished community context likely leads to community members feeling disconnected from the rewards of mainstream society, the stereotyping of Black males as “thugs” and criminals likely added to the officer’s fear of Michael and activated socially constructed cognitive cues of “danger”, the community’s response is generated by local and national racial profiling by the police and a lack of minority representation among the officers, and the type of police response to the protests was a result of the militarization of the police driven by the “war on terror” and the power of the military industrial complex in our economy (and foreign policy).

Teach well, it matters.

Additional reading:

Elijah Anderson, Editor. 2009. Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black, and Male

Kate Harding. 2014. Ten Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet “

Viktor M. Rios. 2006. “The Hyper-Criminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration”

Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson. 2005. “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime and Inequality” in Race, Crime, and Justice: A Reader edited by Shaun L. Gabbidon and Helen Taylor Greene

Nick Wing. 2014.  “When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims”

ADDENDUMS

August 20th, 2014

Recent Gallup survey results show vastly different perceptions of the police. These are not skewed by the events in Ferguson as the data is from 2011-14, but they certainly explain some of the resulting protests.

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August 21, 2014

Below is a link to a good article on the challenges and weaknesses of the data on the number of people killed by police each year. It’s great to inspire critical thinking about facts.

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Here is polling data specific to this event from the Pew Research Center…

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August 26th

“…the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.” (click on the below for the full article)

 

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August 30th, 2014

Another example of police officers shooting to kill based on race. Click below for the full article.

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