The passage of time provides the competition for our attention that distracts us from the hard work required to solve problems. ISIS, Ray Rice and Justin Bieber showing his drawers are enough to push Ferguson, Missouri, off of the front page.
Yet, Ferguson remains a snake pit of unanswered questions. Chief among them is “Was it necessary for an officer of the law to treat an unarmed human being as if he were merely a shooting range target?” Another is “Why weren’t protest marches held in daylight to discourage looting?” And another is “How can the U.S. military justify its budget while flooding the nation with ‘surplus’ war weapons and equipment?” What isn’t at question is that white citizens of Ferguson have fallen into the “They need us!” trap.
A review of the general and the political demographics in Ferguson discloses a seldom addressed lesson that repeats — a lesson that is equally the fault of the government and the governed. Reports are that 67% of the citizens of Ferguson are black while only 29% are white. Yet, Ferguson’s mayor is white, the police chief, the school superintendent, 6 of the 7 city council members, the president of the school board, 6 of the 7 school board members, and 3 of 4 assistant superintendents are white. This means that only 3 of the top 22 area major decision-makers are black. What is true of the police force is likely true of school educators. It has been widely reported that 50 of 53 police officers are white meaning that 94% of the police force is white, again in a city in which more than 2/3rd of the population is black!
And why is this? Institutionalized racism? Oppression? American Aparthied? Political dirty tricks? With black citizens representing 2 out of 3 voters, there is only one plausible explanation — black voter apathy set a trap into which many white Ferguson citizens fell. “They NEED us to lead them!” But in the words of the old song “Things just ain’t the same, anytime the hunter gets captured by the game.” People who fall for the old “They need us!” trap have been, in the words of Malcolm X, had, flimflammed and bamboozled. In urban usage it’s the “okay doke,” in magic it’s prestidigitation and in boxing parlance it’s the rope-a-dope.
According to sources, there was only a 12% voter turnout in Ferguson’s last election. And it isn’t much of a leap in logic to conclude that most of that vote came from the White community.
Truth is, black people are capable of governing ourselves — so why haven’t more Black citizens of Ferguson stepped up? It could be racist residuals, nihilism, or apathy. But it is a game.
The black game being played is “We’re helpless — govern us!” With 67% of the population, Black under-representation in governance is inexcusable. The mayor, the city council, the school board and the police department should be dominated by the black community if, for no other reason, that these are good-paying, influential jobs, many with lifelong pensions that can help sustain Ferguson’s economy.
Black orators have spoken more memorably on this topic than I can. Dr. King said “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” At the funeral 2005 of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Rev. Al Sharpton said, “They went to vote when people were threatening their lives… and here you are… no dogs biting you… too lazy and ungrateful! … Nobody should have to beg you to vote! Nobody should have to beg you to stand up and protect the rights that they died and suffered to give us.” And Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “People can be slave-ships in shoes.”
The white game unfolds as “They need us, so we will dominate! We’ll pretend it’s pre-Mandela Pretoria and we’ll rule.” I don’t agree with George Will on much, but I do agree with his statement that, “Liberals came to think like the Trollope character who said that when doing good to people ‘one has no right to expect that they should understand it. It is like baptizing little infants.’” Black people aren’t little infants —we don’t need to be controlled, coddled, cuddled, or cared for by others as if we are hopeless, hapless and helpless wards of the state.
In the spirit of diversity, more white leaders are compelled to share leadership responsibility and accountability with communities of color by attracting, recruiting, developing, retaining, promoting and supporting high potential people of color for significant positions. Game avoidance says, “I’ll do my best while preparing and assisting others of color to learn my skill sets.” This sharing of knowledge and skills through coaching and the development of protégés is about self-preservation and patriotism given America’s changing demographics.
Representative numbers of black Ferguson citizens in the mayor’s office, on the city council, on the school board, in schools and, especially, on the police force would likely have avoided the intensity of the protests and may have prevented the killing of an unarmed young man in the first place.
Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” describes a person who has developed the habit of walking down a street only to fall into a deep hole. The first time the person was surprised, but even after the initial shock the person kept walking down the same street and falling into the same hole. Eventually, the person learned to avoid the hole and then to avoid the street. Such is the power of tradition and habit, until we determine that we can stop our addiction and we can interrupt racist patterns.
Old unlearned lessons persist in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the United States of America. Justice, fairness, equity, community policing, non-violent protests, patience, responsible journalism, and vigilance are among them. As cameras and global attention turn elsewhere; as time passes and the slow wheels of American juris prudence catalogues Michael Brown into the same fading file with Trayvon Martin and others, black Ferguson is compelled to continue marching — to college to prepare for leadership positions; to the clerk’s office to file nomination papers; to city council and to school board meetings to demand equity; to complete job applications and civil rights complaints when discriminated against; to tag rogue police officers with complaints so that their records reflect their interactions with citizens; and most importantly to the ballot box to elect individuals who aren’t interested in game-playing. The voter turnout this November represents the test.
Dr. John Odom is a consultant and speaker based in Madison and he is the author of: “Saving Black America: An Economic Plan for Civil Rights,” “Vote Every Time,” and soon be published “No N-r Please!”