How to Talk About Ferguson

In the most recent wave of racially-focused campus activism, many have posed an excellent suggestion: “Let’s talk about Ferguson.” Although I’ve found many of the self-proclaimed ‘Movement’s’ postings to be inflammatory and reductive—though undoubtedly well-intentioned—this one strikes me as particularly valuable, since it really aims to engage our community in a conversation that is absolutely worth having. However, while this might be a good way to begin the conversation, the language of social activism doesn’t provide a useful way to continue the discussion. The kind of pithy, axiomatic language that fits on signs and on the bricks of Martin’s Way is too simple and too myopic to be really effective in launching a serious conversation about prejudice. Therefore, in the hopes of generating a more substantive dialogue, I have compiled a list of suggestions about how to have a productive discussion about the shooting of Michael Brown, or any of the other recent tragic shootings of young black men by white police officers. 

1. Be wary of simplifying a story so that it fits a particular narrative. We cannot allow outrage to overwhelm our capital-R Reason. Outrage only simplifies, never augments our understanding, and often replaces truth with good storytelling. 

2. Avoid the following terms: “white privilege,” “race card,” “conspiracy,” the infamous “There is no more racism,” any reference whatsoever to slavery or Hitlerian genocide, or God forbid, “He had it coming.” 

3. Remember that the language that you use is just as important as what you actually say. 

4. Speak in sentences, not in slogans. If your entire ideology fits onto a poster, you need to reconsider the value of that ideology. 

5. Remember that our focus cannot be on guilt but must be on injustice. Don’t ask the question Who did it and where can we find him? but Why did this happen, and how did it happen, and how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

6. Understand that the clear majority of police officers in the United States are honest and hard-working. Remember that 99.9% of them don’t want to shoot anyone. Ever.

7. Remember that hashtags do not catalyze constructive discourse. True discussion does not blossom when limited to 140 characters. 

8. Speak to living, breathing human beings. A series of Facebook posts does not count as a dialogue. 

9. Acknowledge the fact that there is no scientific consensus on whether a white police officer is more likely to shoot a black suspect than a white one. Data on unjustified shootings and homicides is severely lacking, especially since the numbers that do exist make almost no reference to the race of the victims. The studies that do exist present contradictory conclusions: on the one hand, some suggest, as we might intuitively believe, that predominately white police forces are far more likely to shoot blacks than whites. On the other hand, a study done at the University of Washington suggests that black suspects are actually less likely to be shot than white suspects, given that “[cops] know the social context in which they’re operating,” as Dr. David Klinger stated in a recent article for The New York Times.

10. Nevertheless, still acknowledge the fact that prejudice and racial profiling is real—hardly an invention of America’s minority populations—and that it is a serious hazard to the freedom and safety of all American citizens, minority or not. 

11. Remember where we are. We are all very lucky to live and study in an environment that is for the most part nurturing to our differences and violently opposed to prejudice. The kind of discussion that needs to happen at Hamilton College is very different from the kind that needs to happen in Missouri. Let’s not pretend as though we’re in the eye of a cultural hurricane.

12. Appreciate moderation and uncertainty. “I don’t know” is a valid answer to some of the questions we’re faced with.

13. Replace the mantra “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter.”