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Race is the driving force of the ongoing Ferguson conversation

Milam's Musings

Race is back under the national microscope after Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer this summer. For many white Americans, this situation is likened to yet another Al Sharpton race-bait theater show. Only 37 percent of white Americans think the Ferguson case raises important issues about race, according to Pew Research. Compare that to the 80 percent of black Americans who think it does.

Colorblindness is the operating philosophy of white America; they say it is actually those who bring race into the discussion that act as the purveyors of racial division. The thinking from this philosophy goes: It's 2014. We have a black president, we're 50 years removed the Civil Rights Era and even further removed from Jim Crow and slavery. The problems in the black community derive from black-on-black crime, which nobody discusses. It depends on the breakdown of the black family unit and the lack of personal responsibility from black Americans.

Race is no longer a factor, according to the cohorts to colorblindness.

All this thinking, while prevalent - after all, 47 percent of whites said race is getting more attention than it deserves in Ferguson - is inaccurate and a symptom of white privilege. Let's face it. It's nice to be white. We can control the narrative and say race doesn't matter; worse, we can say we're operating from a higher moral plane by buying into colorblindness. We can say history no longer influences the present, even though it does. We can say that we exist in a post-racial society, even if we don't. We can ignore the pleas of the black community.

To be clear, the events in Ferguson not only transcend the death of Michael Brown, but are also not solely about race. There's an important discussion (which I'll save for a later time) to be had about policing in America and the justice system. However, race is a component so easily dismissed that it needs to be brought under a spotlight.

A black author, James Baldwin, once said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." Colorblindness is code for apathy, for not facing our history and how it has informed present-day conditions.

I will start with black-on-black crime. Between 1976 and 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders. However, also between that period, 86 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders. Crime is about the intersection of opportunity and proximity. Since blacks tend to live with blacks and whites tend to live with whites, crime tends to fall along racial lines. But you won't see anyone talking about white-on-white crime or raising alarm bells about the divorce rate among white families because black-on-black crime insinuates that it's a uniquely black problem instead of just a crime problem.

It's appalling when peddlers of the black-on-black crime red herring suggest that those in the black community aren't discussing crime in their community. This goes back to shutting out the pleas of the black community. There are so many organizations, like CeaseFire, in Chicago and other cities, with marches and spearheaded by black leaders to push back against the cycle of violence.

The other myth - the absentee black father - gets a lot play, but it is also inaccurate. A study published by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black fathers are not just involved in their children's lives on a daily basis, but even more so than their white or Latino counterparts. Sure, 67 percent of black fathers don't live with their children, but that doesn't mean they aren't involved in their lives.

There are those, like black economists, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, who will argue black family structures were similar to white families from the late 19th century until the middle 20th century. Professor Steven Ruggles from the University of Minnesota, in his article, "The Origins of African-American Family Structure," said, "The revisionists thus implied that the distinctive African-American family pattern is of recent origin, and this reinforced the now widespread view that economic disadvantages faced by blacks in the recent past are responsible."

Ruggles concluded in contradiction to Williams and Sowell, "The finding of recent studies that the high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without parents among blacks is not new. The pattern is clearly evident as far back as 1850 among free blacks. From 1880 through 1960, the percentage of black children with at least one absent parent was fairly stable and about two-and-one-half times greater than the percentage among whites. Recently, the percentages of both black children and white children with absent parents have risen dramatically…"

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In other words, despite what Williams and Sowell would contend, the so-called breakdown of the black family unit has historical roots and does not necessarily signify an absentee father. More importantly, it cannot so readily explain the violence in the black community.

Do not take away from this piece that I'm suggesting all whites are racist or to blame for all the ills of black Americans. My intention is to point out the structural racism, which has existed since the days of slavery and continues on today. You can't have centuries of white supremacy through slavery and Jim Crow laws and then the Drug War, mass incarceration, redlining and racist housing policies and then say, "Yeah, but if you just pull yourself up from your bootstraps!"

Yes, personal responsibility matters, but it's not nearly the whole picture.

As Te-Nehisi Coates, one of the most important writers about racial disparity in America, said, "The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts - they evidence them."

We cannot begin to face the systemic racism in America until we do away with these myths that try to erase the legacy of white supremacy or the real impact of racially disproportionate policies. Facing these disparities, but more importantly, listening to the black community, is the only way to move forward on solutions.

White privilege and the legacy of white supremacy do not mean white people are currently guilty for the problems of black people. But continuing to ignore the roots of those problems does make us guilty.