A little Ferguson context…

As protests against the Grand Jury decision not to bring charges against Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown continue to spread across the United States, it is worth considering the context in which both the decision took place, and the protests are taking place. It can be difficult to comprehend the extent to which the US legal system and media play a role in maintaining structures of discrimination. What follows are short passages from my writing on these issues, containing links to the original article (in the heading), as well as links to good studies, reports and articles (in the main body). Naturally, there are lots of other issues to be discussed — police shootings, general incarceration rates, poverty — but this is (some of) what I have written to date.

On disproportionate, racist prison sentencing:

At the height of the purported cocaine “epidemic” in the US in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials felt something had to be done. What Congress did was to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: one of the most draconian, overtly racist pieces of legislation in US history. The law introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including an astonishing 5 years in federal prison for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. What moved the law from the medieval to the outright racist, however, was the fact that in order to spend the same 5 years in prison for possession of powder cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams of the substance. In other words, there was a 100:1 sentencing disparity between convictions for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Expensive powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice for upper-middle class suburban kids and white-collar bankers, while much cheaper crack was favored by poorer drug users. Despite such a blatant discriminatory factor, it took 26 years to pass the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which pushed the sentencing ratio down from an outlandishly racist 100:1 to an outrageously racist 18:1.

On a racist death penalty:

Between January 1, 2008 and February 2, 2014, there have been 266 executions in the US. In 2012, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US were the top 5 global executioners. Disturbingly, earlier studies have shown that US prosecutors were twice as likely to request the death penalty for a black defendant who is charged with killing a non-black victim versus a black victim; and, white defendants were twice as likely as non-white to be offered a plea agreement to reduce their sentence from execution to life imprisonment. The death penalty gets coverage, but far too many of the “What-did-he-have-for-his-last-meal?” variety.

On racist US media fear-mongering:

Of course, a real, nuanced debate cannot happen when each instance of racism and its consequences are treated as isolated incidents, divorced from the everyday realities facing blacks and other minorities in the United States. And a debate is impossible if news organizations refuse to step back and consider the connections between the stories they present to the public as utterly distinct and unrelated. For example, the transition from the news about Brown’s death to ISIL and Ebola was an excellent opportunity to consider how the race and racism so painfully obvious in Ferguson is reflected in the language and attitudes displayed in relation to terrorism and disease. A rational debate cannot take place in an environment of drama and fear. Nor can it take place in an environment of misinformation, in which Americans think, on average, that Muslims make up 15 percent and immigrants 32 percent of the U.S. population, when Muslims actually account for 1 percent and immigrants 13 percent.


“In both the United States and Europe, Ebola is increasing racial profiling and reviving imagery of the ‘dark continent,’” Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in a recent op-ed. “The disease is persistently portrayed as West African or African or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black, even though nothing medically differentiates the vulnerability of any race to Ebola.” This linking of Ebola with racist imagery of an ill-defined “Africa” has also played into a number of disturbing incidents across the United States. For example, last month applicants to a college in Texas from (Ebola-free) Nigeria were informed that the school was no longer accepting applications from countries with “confirmed Ebola cases.” A Guinean high school soccer player in Pennsylvania was taunted from the stands with cries of “Ebola!” The chorus of calls for travel bans from West African countries has been growing.

Ferguson, ISIL and Ebola speak to the culture of fear prevalent in the United States, a fear stoked by journalism that favors short-term sensationalism (laced with xenophobia) over deeper analysis. The coverage of Ebola has been boiled down to the media-friendly details — pumping up the rare U.S. cases of the illness, discussing quarantines, speculating about infected surfaces and critiquing President Barack Obama’s failure to institute flight bans, among other things. The much-needed context on poverty in Africa, the cost of health care and prejudices at home is woefully absent from the discourse.

On a short-sighted approach to racism in the US media:

I can no more understand the true functioning of US politics by watching coverage of a Presidential debate (or even an entire election) than I can understand structural racism in the US by watching coverage of the 1991 beating of Rodney King or the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Of course, I can bear witness to the results of structural prejudice and inequality by watching these events, and I can get a sense of how that prejudice and inequality is a viscous circle.

What is lost in sporadic event-based coverage, however, is the everydayness of racism in the US (or anywhere, for that matter) (…) A full accounting of how such prejudice permeates society requires constant attention and explanation, and a focus upon the things that make everyday life difficult for many citizens in the US: housing discrimination, job discrimination, subtle racism in the form of looks and comments, and overt racism in the form of police harassment or media invisibility — things that white Americans rarely experience. And, not to forget the long-term implications of practices such as the death penalty and “3 Strikes” laws upon how minorities in the US have little trust that their system of justice is blind.

Unfortunately, these stories never lose relevance.