Of all fatal police shootings, around 10% are by black police officers. When black officers use lethal force, it is directed at other black men 78% of the time. Obviously, black officers tend to work in black neighborhoods and so it is natural that they would shoot black men at higher rates. Even so, the point is clear: black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their peers and ultimately it’s because we can be. We simply don’t matter.
Racial attitudes of white cops alone cannot explain the impunity with which black men are killed and indeed why their cop killers are scarcely held accountable. Certainly there must be black cops who are not overly fond of whites, given the history of the two races and yet these black cops do not seem to take aggressive behavior or questionable circumstances as license to kill white men. There is still a certain reverence, perhaps even fear, of committing violence against a white man that blacks innately have. At the core, even if questionable in character, whites matter and possess human dignity. The American experience has ingrained this thinking in both black and white. Ultimately, this reality stems from our history of racism, and those mental shackles still hold us- black and white- in bondage.
People matter because they have power, significance or the ability to defend their interests. Can you imagine a nation invading the United States or sending drones above Washington to wage war? Hardly. It’s because America matters: it has power, significance and the ability to defend its interests. Blacks have always feared doing harm to whites because we understood that there would be dire consequences. The same has hardly been true in the reverse.
With this in mind, we think of Ferguson. Those three syllables now have meaning and presence in the American psyche. Immediately, images of protest, anger and indeed cries for justice come to mind. From the outside looking in, however, I struggle to understand the aims of the movement. Do we merely want Officer Darren Wilson arrested? Are we hoping to collectively purge conscious and unconscious elements of racism from the inner core, which lead police of all stripes to disproportionately murder black men? As celebrities descend on Ferguson, I’m wondering what lasting effect they will have. Arresting Wilson won’t stop the next one and protests alone certainly cannot change attitudes and bias at its core.
Ferguson is located within St. Louis County in Missouri, where roughly 23% of the population is black. For households with earnings in St. Louis County, the median income was $95,420 for whites and only $47,164 for blacks: less than half the number for whites! 7.4% of white families with children under 18 live in poverty while the number is 29.7% for black families. Over 75% of whites own the home they occupy while fewer than half of blacks do (preceding stats from 2011-2013 American Community Survey estimates). While white unemployment in 2012 stood at 5.7%, the number for blacks was 17.8%. Frankly, with those numbers, it’s easy to see why black folks don’t matter in St. Louis County. With such bleak economic outcomes, it is obvious that blacks lack power, significance and the ability to defend their interests. The natural reaction to injustice in this context, then, becomes to beg those in power to be more benevolent: “Don’t Shoot!” was the cry so often heard after the Mike Brown killing. Don’t shoot? This is a plea of the powerless to those more powerful, simply not to hunt them like animals: a truly sad state of affairs.
Cornel West was recently arrested at a rally in Ferguson. While I do not question the sincerity and commitment of the great scholar, whom I’ve admired for many years, I do question the long-term effectiveness of not only him but others who’ve offered themselves as noble sacrifices. Once more, if the protesters somehow manage to force the arrest and prosecution of Darren Wilson, unarmed black men will still be shot. Again, protests will not undo centuries of conscious and unconscious biases that lead to black men being judged more harshly on a daily basis. The problems are deeper and as such, the methods of organizing must also be. As we’ve seen, economic power is lacking and without it, we don’t matter. Any organizing or protest that does not go to the heart of this reality is at best, shortsighted.
Gateway National Bank was the first black owned bank in Missouri and in the wake of the financial crisis, was forced to close its doors. In its place is a parking lot for a furniture rental store. I bring this up because this could have easily been converted into an opportunity for someone with the right platform. Banks are essential because they take in deposits, provide credit and help grow capital. Supporting black businesses, of course, is important but businesses don’t necessarily sustain neighborhoods and grow assets in the way banks do. Without flowing capital for homes and businesses, neighborhoods die. That parking lot, in many ways, is a perfect picture of all that has lead to the Mike Brown tragedy.
With a national platform, I would like to have seen West and others rally people to turn their anger into deposits. I would like to see him and others not only ensure that a black owned financial institution exists in the St. Louis area but to also sit down with the heads of it and set targets on lending to black businesses and home loans to black borrowers. I would like to see individuals with the mic tell the people that once businesses are open that they must make a steadfast determination to spend their dollars there and in so doing help those businesses expand and hire folks from the community. I would like to see those with more celebrity than most, explicitly tell the people of St. Louis County that a new day is dawning and it will come about because we are committed to steering our dollars toward our own liberation, and not a cop in the world can do anything about it. I do not mean to suggest that this work is easy and no, we will not have the massive governmental support that European peasants benefited from over the past 200 years. I am saying, however, that the platform is a definite plus. Those that have it must think more critically about how they use it.
Black leaders orchestrated an agreement for a local credit union to purchase the assets of Gateway National Bank and eventually, the credit union plans to erect a new branch at Gateway’s old site. In that it is a credit union, it could technically be called black owned if the majority of the members are black. Perhaps that might be a starting point, but without leaders effectively using their platforms to organize in this way, few will know that these open doors actually exist. I respect Dr. West and all the other brave women and men on the ground. I’m only saying that the world we want will not be created by the protests that we have. Protests cannot wipe away bias and hateful sentiments. Strategic organizing, however, can lead to economic power and ultimately, the day where black lives matter.
Note: I would like to thank a new friend in the struggle, a member of the St. Louis Black MBA chapter, for her local insights which helped me tremendously in writing this article.