The shadow of Ferguson

Aug. 27, 2014 @ 04:45 PM

About 800 miles separate Durham from Ferguson, Missouri, but the tragic and unsettling events in that St. Louis suburb have resonated here, as they have across most of the nation, these past three weeks.

Monday, students and others rallied at N. C. Central University to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black, unarmed teenager, by a Ferguson policeman on Aug 9. The rally, organized by the school’s Black Law Students Association, drew Chancellor Debra Saunders-White and the Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Irving Joyner, an outspoken law professor at NCCU, affirmed the linkage between those of us here in Durham and the residents of Ferguson.

“The fact that another black person was gunned down by a white police officer is nothing new,” Joyner reminded the crowd. “What is new is that we are concerned about it today... And our concern, though demonstrated here today, must be a first step.”

In some ways, it is easy to disassociate nourselves from Ferguson.

There, African Americans, while a sizable part of the population, are barely present in the power structure. Only one city council member is black, and only three of the town’s 53 officers are black.

Here, of course, with a roughly equal population of whites and blacks – and neither a majority race – African American political power has a long and important legacy. While our poverty rate – across all racial lines – is embarrassingly high, this city has for generations been home to a prosperous African American community that through the years of Jim Crow segregation was especially uncommon in the South.

But as speakers at the NCCU rally reminded us, the corrosive residue of those decades of racial oppression preceded by centuries of slavery has not disappeared, not even here. We wrestle with questions of racial profiling by law enforcement, and about racial disparities in enforcing the law. We grapple with achievement gaps in our public schools. We know poverty is disproportionate in predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Joyner’s advice to those at Monday’s rally appropriate focused on the political process as the best means for continuing to tackle those issues.

Rallies and memorial services won’t bring change, he said. “We can’t change it by getting mad and burning down buildings and breaking out glass in stores and stealing a six-pack….We change this reality by gaining power, using power and maintaining the power that we have.”

That is, at our best, how we approach this in Durham. We talk about our issues, debate them, sometimes argue vigorously over them – but then settle them in government chambers or at the ballot box.