(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
When Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in the middle of a busy street, large protests and riots followed. Many Ferguson businesses, homes and cars were looted and burned. One more killing of a young black man, by a white police officer, was like a match to a powder keg. Anger in that community had been building for a long time.
Writing to his son about such police killings, Ta-Nehisi Coates says on page 9 of his book Between the World and Me, “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
The anger in Ferguson and many other cities after a police shooting of an unarmed black man comes from many causes. In Ferguson, that anger can be directly connected to decades of discriminatory policies – ones which Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about extensively in the Atlantic magazine where he is a senior editor and writer.
In 1934, as Coates has described, laws were enacted by the Federal Housing Authority that allowed “redlining” of certain neighborhoods. Homes in redlined areas are ineligible for government insured mortgages. These policies continue today. Ferguson is one such redlined community meaning that residents and potential buyers cannot obtain low interest and low down payment mortgages. Property values plummet as a result. Most homeowners in redlined neighborhoods are essentially trapped. They cannot sell their homes because there are no buyers.
These discriminatory redlining policies led to white flight from inner cities. Between 2000 and 2010, St. Louis and its immediate neighborhoods, of which Ferguson is one, experienced a 7% population decline. Outlying communities, ones not redlined, experienced a 27% increase. The result is a St. Louis, and nearby communities like Ferguson, that are deeply segregated. Ferguson today is 67% black when only twenty years ago it was majority white. Property values for blacks in Ferguson plummeted with white flight – all due to Federal policies that enriched white home buyers at the expense of black home owners.
The average financial wealth that a black family has in their home in St. Louis County is $75,000. The average wealth a white St. Louis County family has stored in their home is $217,000. Such a wealth gap exists across the U.S. and is similar to the wealth gap in Cincinnati. The inner city here, and its immediate neighborhoods, are mostly black and poor. Outlying communities are mostly white and well-off. This is due to white fear of integrated neighborhoods and, most importantly, to systemic racist policies.
Adding fuel to such discrimination and resulting black anger is the fact that the Ferguson Police Department, like many inner city Police Departments around the country, is mostly white. Ferguson is 67% African-American but, at the time of Michael Brown’s shooting, was policed by a 94% white force.
Irregardless of what Michael Brown did or did not do, whether or not he robbed a convenience store before he was shot, there is no justification for his killing. As Coates writes in his book, whether or not an unarmed black individual has committed a relatively minor offense, that does not grant the right to Police to act as Judge, Jury and executioner. And yet that is exactly what Police often do – as Police did to Michael Brown for walking in the middle of a street, to 12 year old Tamir Rice for playing in a park with a toy gun, to Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes, to John Crawford at a Walmart in Dayton, Ohio for picking up a BB gun, to Walter Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina for driving with a broken car tail light, to Freddy Gray of Baltimore for running from a stop and frisk police search, to Philando Castille whose had been stopped for speeding, and here in Cincinnati, to Samuel Dubose for not displaying a license plate on the front of his car.
These are only eight out of thousands of Police shootings of unarmed black men and women who were stopped for minor offenses. As Coates states in his book, these were and are 21st century lynchings.
Such are the reasons for angry and bitter words in Coates’ book and for the overall anger among many African-Americans. This in an anger I ask myself, as I ask you, to ponder, reflect upon, and try to understand. It’s a quiet anger Coates poignantly describes the mother of Prince Jones having. She is a successful woman – one who distinguished herself as a successful surgeon. Mrs. Jones compares herself to Solomon Northrup form the 12 Years a Slave story. Even when an African-American succeeds and matches the aspirations of the American dream, he or she, and their family members, are still subject to death – for no reason – at the hands of Police.
For us as fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, we must put ourselves in Mrs. Jones’ shoes, and in the shoes of every other relative of a black person unjustly shot and killed. How would we feel if it was our child? What level of anger would we express if the killing went unpunished? What emotions would we have toward the Police and criminal justice system?
Psychologists indicate there are three primary causes for anger. The first cause is to experience an affront to a sense of personhood. Everyone feels deserving of respect and dignity simply for being born. This is not only a spiritual ideal, it is a universal human right. When someone feels disrespected, ignored, invalidated or misunderstood – essentially diminished as a person – he or she is very likely to feel angry.
The second cause of anger is from fear. When a person feels afraid for their personal safety, and that fear is not quickly abated, he or she is likely to feel anger at being forced to live under constant threat.
Third, someone is likely to feel anger when an unresolved memory of a childhood wound or trauma is triggered. Most people have such wounds and when they are not properly addressed and recognized, they can be re-opened when a similar affront is experienced as an adult.
Every one of these anger causes are eloquently described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as ones felt by African-Americans. They are routinely disrespected. They daily live in fear that they will be harassed or harmed. Their children are routinely exposed to traumas of discrimination. In sum, there are multiple valid reasons why Coates and many blacks are angry.
Commentators point out that Between the World and Me is controversial for some whites because Coates is angry – and an angry black man has, throughout history, been considered frightening. That is one reason why black men are often shot, and why racist assumptions about them continue. Many white readers, whether they admit it or not, are subconsciously threatened by Ta-Nehisi Coates..
The facts are, however, that his anger has value. Numerous psychologists point out that while anger is considered a negative emotion, that is an incorrect label. Anger, experts say, helps to protect people. It’s an evolutionary and biological response that causes a person to fight or flee. The benefit of Coates’ anger, and his book, may well be to protect more black men from being killed.
Anger can be an effective way to communicate. By expressing anger, one conveys feelings that something is wrong and needs to be corrected. Indeed, Coates’ book is an effective statement of reasons why African-Americans are angry and it is thereby helpful in building white empathy.
Anger is an effective way to bring about healing. Suppressed anger is, as we all know, destructive. But honest, non-violent anger can restore a dysfunctional relationship. Coates is not gentle with his view of white people, but his words have the potential to create positive change in them.
Finally, healthy anger counter-intuitively reduces violence. It’s a release valve, if you will, of strong feelings. Coates’ book is a stirring black voice that may prevent future racial violence.
Between the World and Me follows the guidelines for expressing effective anger. As such, it is valuable and profound. Despite it being uncomfortable for many white people to read, including me, that is because examining the truth about oneself is often unpleasant.
There is a disease of hate and bigotry eating away at our nation. America has addressed some of the disease’s symptoms, but it has not cured the underlying illness. The disease of racism, fed by white greed and delusions of self importance, is the direct cause of African-American anger. But that anger is valuable if it is listened to, understood, respected and addressed by most of us who tragically, as Coates writes, believe we are white, pure and good.