Ferguson and the Modern American Slave

When you see the militant-like images of Ferguson Missouri and think to yourself that they could easily be images from a distant war— well, you are right, and to be blunt— welcome to modern America.

The home of the free and the land of the complacent.

After the civil war and the 13th and 14th amendments the black people in America went from being perceived as less than human to being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (property).  In short, equal.  But telling a person who was raised to think a certain way, after generations of thinking that way, that they now have to think a new way is not something that happens over night or can be changed with the mighty pen stroke of the president.  It is like telling a child that even though they have been allowed to put their feet on the coffee table for a long time, that now they’re not.  They will continue to do so— from habit, conditioning and/or rebellion.  This was evident in the Jim Crow law and the decades of struggle that followed it (Beauvoir, 1949).  Legislation does not change the hearts and minds of people.   Even when we fast forward to the 21st century— what has changed?  Slavery and explicit racism has been replaced with institutional and implicit racism.   Which is, for all practical purposes, no different.

In Ferguson Missouri the population is 70% African American.  However, the mayor is white, 5 of 6 city council members are white, 6 of 7 education board members are white, 50 of 53 full-time police officers are white and the police chief is white.  There are no slaves in Ferguson and there are no slave-owners in Ferguson.  But the relationship between slave and master is not a relationship built in terminology, but a relationship built in a power dynamic.  When one group has all the power over another group and when the power is based on prejudices and not on rationality or even moral idealism- that, is implicit slavery.  They are not shackled to chains— that would be too obvious.  Their shackles now bind them to poverty, to the feeling of being powerless.

The peaceful protests in Ferguson and the fifteen police agencies that are policing them are not protests for Michael Brown.  They are protesting from a much deeper place.  The tragic and unjust murder of Michael Brown was a catalyst.  It awakened the people of Ferguson and the country, at that matter, to the idea that we are not free.  To the realization that the group with the power will acquiesce to allowing the illusion of freedom, in practicality, as long as you do not question it.   The protests in Ferguson are questioning the legitimacy of power and the bondage of institutional racism.  And as you have seen in the alarming imagery that has come from Ferguson and the military-like response, they will not give up their power easily.  Like a child that just lost its favorite toy and responds by throwing an irrational tantrum.

If I was to sit, right now, and attempt to paint something and then immediately post it online to sell, I would be lucky if somebody would be willing to pay the cost of shipping.   Even though my painting, technically speaking, may or may not be any better (relatively speaking) than paintings that sell for millions.   This is because art is not given value by style, color, technique, mood or anything else that you can infer from the painting itself.  Art is given value by the buyer, it is worth whatever a person is willing to pay for it.  Nothing more and nothing less.   In other words, art is subjective.  Government, is no different.  Our government, local or federal, only has value if we give it value.  The legitimacy of the government or any institution is subjective.  If we all woke up one day and decided that the United States Government no longer had legitimacy, then it would lose all value and cease to exist.  Although, this would not happen without struggle and, most likely, violence.

The tragic story in Ferguson has caused a media frenzy and many people are taking sides with Brown or against Brown.  Arguing over trivialities.  But in abstraction, the one who killed Brown was all of us.  Me, you and every citizen of the United States.   Everyday we wake up and give value and legitimacy to our government, our silence is acceptance of the power as being legitimate and deserving.   The actions of the Darrel Wilson, who shot an unarmed man six times for shoplifting, is a manifestation of our implicit reality.  You may feel far away and removed from the violence and injustice, but the reality is the ideological conditions that lead to the problems in Ferguson exist in your town too.  Nobody notices the pot is boiling until it boils over.

Maybe you think you’re a patriot and that it is unAmerican to question the power of America and maybe you think you are powerless and there is nothing you can do to change anything.  The idea of America is exactly that, an idea.  America is not defined as a border, or by people, or by any individual.  It was built on virtues of the individual, that the individual has natural rights and natural claims to liberties.  If these virtues no longer exist, then America no longer exists either.  A true patriot would fight for the ideas we were founded upon, not just blindly accept that the United States is allowed to grant itself objective legitimacy.  Nothing can have power, by granting power to itself.  Power is given by the refusal to challenge it.

And if you think you are powerless, then you will become powerless.  To be complacent to the oppressive conditions and the boiling pot that quietly simmers in the background— is akin to accepting it, promoting it and, in short, being it.   A quiet and passive slave that cries over the cruelties towards another slave, but does nothing to stop it, does nothing to change the conditions and does not work towards finding freedom is no better than the slave-owner.  Passively accepting slavery or oppression is equal to actively creating slavery or oppression.

Michael Brown died because Americans are cowards.

And he will die again and yet again.

And for what?

 


Sources:

  1. Beauvoir, Simone De, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity;. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.

 

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