America continues to quiver in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri earlier in August. The non-stop media coverage of the ongoing protests in the small St. Louis suburb only serves to perpetuate the same race-centric debate – black versus white – that has been waxing and waning in the public dialogue for over 200 years in this country.
When the conversation devolves into one of black versus white, attention is only being paid to the symptoms while the underlying problems are not being addressed. Viewing the situation in its political context can shed light on the bigger picture: a white police officer may have shot Michael Brown, but the black community of Ferguson is responsible for his death.
The Balance of Power
Ferguson’s population, as of the 2010 census, was 67 percent black and only 29 percent white. Despite the town’s clear black majority, they are tragically underrepresented in the local government and positions of power. Ferguson’s city council, save for one member, is entirely composed of white individuals. The Chief of Police, and the overwhelming majority of his department, is white, and the town has always elected a white mayor.
Despite the conspiracy theories cooked up in smoke-hazed dark rooms across the country, the “system” – particularly on a local level – is built to place the balance of power in the hands of the majority. That mechanism works, but only if people participate. In Ferguson’s last local election, a mere twelve percent of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots.
It is worth mentioning that the nearby town of Country Club Hills, Missouri has a similar demographic makeup as Ferguson. Their local elections, though have had much different outcomes. Country Club Hills has a black mayor, a black police chief, and many black councilmembers. Perhaps the people of Ferguson should look to Country Club Hills as an example of what can be done, with a bit of political effort.
There is nothing inherently wrong with elected officials being of a different race than a larger part of their constituencies. The problem highlighted in the Michael Brown case is that many Ferguson residents don’t seem to identify or agree with their own elected officials, like County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch. The source of distrust from the black community is McCulloch’s history of siding with the police, even in other racially charged issues. Many have called for McCulloch to recuse himself from the Brown case. However, the people calling for his recusal are the same people that failed to stop his election, or to put forth a challenger that better represented their points of view.
Weeks of protests won’t fix Ferguson, riots won’t fix Ferguson, and twitter hashtags certainly won’t fix Ferguson. If black people want a local government that holds their views, they need to get off of their backsides and vote. You can’t have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” if the “people” won’t be bothered to make themselves heard.
The words of Malcolm X ring true even now in the case of Michael Brown:
“It’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet.”
Newsweek, the New York Times