Commentary: Choosing Who We Are As Americans—Reflections on Ferguson
By Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant
“Oh beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties,
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on Thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!”
After the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, Jr., the skies don’t seem so spacious. They seem clouded, grey, oppressive. The majestic and spacious skies, this place of abundant fruit and grain that we sing about…America, the beautiful… isn’t feeling so beautiful today.
Today, it feels as though once again, America has pulled back the curtain and revealed for the entire world a different land, one that is deeply flawed. The awful, haunting melody of death has again revealed the unequal treatment America metes out to a segment of its “brotherhood.” From sea to shining sea, it is painfully evident that brotherhood between men – indeed, all people – of all races is a falsehood. And for black people in America, the repeated inconsistency between the words we are taught to sing about this nation and the reality of the lived black experience is simply too much to take.
Each day, we as Americans make choices–choices about how we live our personal lives, how we treat others, and about what is fair and just. These choices are made based on both explicit and implicit biases that we have learned over time. Research reveals that human choices are more largely influenced by our unconscious or implicit biases about “the other.” Thus, our attitudes and actions toward people who are different from us in some significant way such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or disability are driven by these biases. Implicit bias is derived from many things, including our experiences in early life, media exposure, hearsay, or passive observation of the world around us.
Those who are in positions of influence or power also choose to make decisions that significantly impact the opportunities and future success of “the other.” In the case of Ferguson, “the other” is black people, and the family of Michael Brown, Jr. From what we have read and seen, this young man’s life was tragically cut short because Darren Wilson did not relate well to Michael’s culture, his lived experiences, his body language, or his story. Michael was “the other.” And so Darren Wilson acted with haste and force. That was his unfortunate choice.
At CLASP, and in my daily work with national and community leaders, I see how policy, too, all comes down to choices. In the interest of a more solid and free nation, Americans can choose to destroy the institutional racism and policy structures that stand in the way of equity for people of color. We can create a better society through sound policies at the federal, state, and local levels. We can open up child care to more children and their families. We can reduce disproportionate minority contact in our criminal justice system. We can reform child support laws to keep non-custodial parents connected to their children and improve their economic circumstances. We can give all low-income children of color an equitable education through better financing and stronger local education policy. We can smooth the pathway to postsecondary education for low-income, first generation students by restructuring financial aid and providing support for persistence in school. We can transform communities of color riddled by concentrated poverty and crime by creating solid, sustainable opportunities for work.
Without these positive choices, America stands to lose the contributions and talent of far too many of its youth, not only through dramatic tragedies but through the day-to-day erosion of belief and hope. Soon, fully half of young people under 18 will be people of color – underlining the tragedy for the nation if our heedless and biased choices throw away that potential. To me, this future makes no sense: How many more black men and boys must die before we tackle the issue of bias head-on in our police departments? How many more black families must struggle in poverty? How many more black children must get an inferior education? How many more black men must be incarcerated more punitively? How many more black institutions and communities must crumble before we name and address the deeply rooted bias that undergirds decision-making in our nation and prevents progress?
I am but one voice, but I have hope – hope that we will dig up and uproot these biases and choose to take the next crucial steps to fix this nation, starting with the inequity of poverty. I am encouraged by the work of heroes such as those who served on the United States Sentencing Commission, who courageously changed drug sentencing policies and applied them retroactively. Three-fourths of those impacted by this decision are black and Hispanic offenders who received more punitive sentences than whites. This choice took bravery and integrity. And it provides an inspiring model as we create solutions to bias.
It’s our choice.
Until then, I sing…
“Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”