Ferguson report on racism is fundamentally flawed

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as chair of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

I was among the panelists who spoke late last month at a forum on the Ferguson Commission’s report sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. I felt like the skunk at the garden party because most panelists and many in attendance seemed sympathetic to the report. What were my misgivings?

I had read the 200-page report produced in the wake of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police Office Darren Wilson in Ferguson in August 2014. The report yielded 189 policy recommendations on matters ranging from policing to improving health care and education in the black community to reducing economic inequality. 

The document has been rightly criticized by many as an unwieldy, wildly unrealistic wish list of proposed reforms, most of which were only indirectly related to the Ferguson shooting and which could not practically hope to be implemented. 

I, too, found the report lacking, but for somewhat different reasons. While I applauded the hard work of the commission and supported a number of the recommendations, such as municipal court reform and consolidation of some police departments in St. Louis County, I felt the report was fundamentally flawed in its diagnosis of the problem and the solutions it offered.

Although the authors claimed that the report was based on “unflinching hard truths,” they ignored some “inconvenient truths,” engaging in cherry-picking of data, simplistic analysis of complex phenomena and focusing more on finger-pointing than searching for real answers to the race problems we have in America.

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I started my comments at the JCRC event by acknowledging the obvious: We have a long history of racism in this country and continue to have racism, and that race remains a serious, important issue that needs to be addressed, particularly in St. Louis. 

However, reading the report, you would never know we had made any racial progress in America since slavery and Jim Crow – never mind an African-American occupant of the highest office in the land who has been elected not once but twice by large majorities; never mind two of the last four U.S. secretaries of state entrusted with the fate of the nation have been black, and were appointed by a president of a party commonly labeled racist, the same party that has a black man as a leading contender for its presidential nomination; and never mind tons of other evidence of extraordinary progress in race relations. 

It is important to have a race conversation, but the conversation will go nowhere if it is one-sided. The report puts the onus entirely on whites discriminating against blacks, ignoring the fact that even where there is an entirely black political power structure, as in my hometown of Baltimore (where Freddie Gray was killed by police), the problems remain the same. If one wants to play the blame game, there is blame to go around.

Reading the report, you would also never know how complicated the issues of poverty, policing and other concerns are. Everything is reduced to blacks being victimized by “the system.” In basing conclusions mostly on selective statistics showing disparate outcomes (educational achievement, wealth, life expectancy and other “gaps”) between whites and blacks, the report substitutes racial bean counting for more serious contextual analysis. 

For example, it notes that black students are suspended more often than white students in schools, without considering the possibility that they may possibly be behaving worse and without considering how reforms aimed at relaxing disciplinary punishments in order to equalize suspension rates might add to disruptive classrooms for whites and blacks alike. 

The report fails to examine problems within the black community that may be at the root of educational and economic deprivation. According to American Community Survey data released in 2014, every child born in Wellston in 2013 was born to an unwed mother, and the black out-of-wedlock birthrate nationally exceeded 70 percent. This is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report (“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”), which, along with the Coleman Report (“Equality of Educational Opportunity,” 1966) found that there is a limit to what schools can do in the absence of strong, stable households where parents read to their children and monitor homework.  

Although poverty certainly contributes heavily to family dysfunction, the converse is true as well, as Moynihan and Coleman noted. More recently, William Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, wrote (in the Oct. 27 Wall Street Journal) that “most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide variety of outcomes” and that  “black children bear the brunt of single parenthood’s harms.” 

If money alone were the solution, then how does one explain the fact that the white-black academic achievement gap in the Clayton school district has persisted for decades despite “deseg” kids from St Louis having the benefit of a $20,000-per-student education?

A study published by the respected Brookings Institution found that if a young person does three relatively simple things – wait until marriage before having children, earn a high school diploma, and get and hold a job for at least one year – there is a 98 percent chance of escaping poverty. Yet nowhere in the Ferguson Commission’s report was there even the slightest mention of “personal responsibility.”

Perhaps it is in the area of policing that the report was most troublesome. It referred to the police as an “occupying force” in many black neighborhoods. It came close to accepting Quentin Tarantino’s obscene, irresponsible characterization of police as “murderers.” 

Tragic as the Michael Brown death was, the standard narrative that came out of Ferguson and gathered national momentum with the cases of Eric Garner and other highly publicized incidents was based at least in part on a myth – not only the myth of “hands up, don’t shoot, ” but a larger myth. 

If one read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many national media – and read the Ferguson Commission’s report – you would have the impression that nationwide there is an epidemic of rampant, systemic police brutality and racist, rogue cops targeting blacks. No doubt one can find anecdotal examples of bad cops, but the narrative was an unfair stereotyping of police and a distortion of reality. 

As the FBI as well as most criminal justice scholars have noted, there are no reliable data on police shootings in America. Yet this did not stop the Ferguson Commission’s report from parroting the same national narrative about excessive use of force by the police. To the extent we have even semireliable data, they show just the opposite. 

My UMSL colleague David Klinger, a former policeman in Los Angeles and a leading scholar in the field, has collected St. Louis data showing that only 20 African-Americans, almost all of whom were armed, were killed by white St. Louis police officers over the course of a decade between 2003 and 2012, hardly an epidemic.  

Nowhere did the report mention the roughly 6,000 black-on-black murders committed yearly in the United States. FBI Director James Comey argued last month that the recent spike in those numbers across major American cities is due at least partly to the “Ferguson effect,” which has inhibited vigorous law enforcement and harmed black communities the most. Perhaps these sorts of statistics were ignored because they would have undermined the Black Lives Matter narrative presented by the commission. 

I was ready to congratulate the authors of the report for thankfully resisting use of the phrase “white privilege” but, alas, it appeared on page 193 near the end. (The term has become so ubiquitous that it was invoked even by the African-American graduate student at Mizzou who went on a hunger strike to protest victimization despite the fact his father made $8 million last year as a railroad vice president.) 

The phrase is bogus. Not only can one find disadvantaged whites from Appalachia to Affton (e.g., the recent Federation-sponsored study of the St. Louis Jewish community found 25 percent of our fellow Jews “poor” or “near poor”),  but some people of color (Asians) are doing better economically than whites in America. 

Worse, the term is downright racist – racial profiling of an entire group, something I thought we were not supposed to do. It borders on hate speech and only polarizes the race conversation.  Shame on those who use the phrase, including the local Jewish congregations that have been sponsoring discussions on “whiteness.” 

Race is too important an issue to be treated so cavalierly. One would hope the Ferguson Commission and its critics could meet halfway in order to address the real problems we face as a region.