As the Nation Awaits a Grand Jury Decision in Ferguson, It's Time to Confront Our History

  • November 18, 2014

The region and the nation are anxiously awaiting the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown Jr. case, which will determine whether a state criminal case against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson will go forward. In addition, the United States Justice Department is closely examining the legality of police practices in Ferguson and throughout the region in a separate investigation

None of us can know with certainty what evidence the grand jury has heard behind closed doors or whether the grand jury will ultimately hand down an indictment against Wilson. We welcome the efforts that have been made to expand community engagement in advance of the announcement – to de-escalate tensions and respect the rights of lawful protestors. 

But our focus cannot be solely on a grand jury decision in this case – or just on one American community. Ferguson is not unique. This case and its aftermath have put a spotlight on serious racial divisions and discrimination in the country – and a need for active efforts to combat distrust and hostility between law enforcement and the communities they serve

It is a sad truism that, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education and 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, racism persists in the United States. FBI statistics reveal that African Americans are consistently the most frequent targets of hate crimes in America. In our nation’s schools, black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers, often for offenses that fall under subjective and amorphous categories like “willful defiance.”

Social science predicts that one in three black babies born today will spend at least some time in prison during their lives. And studies confirm that bias plays out in other arenas as well, making doctors more likely to prescribe pain medication for white patients with a broken leg than for black or Latino patients.

There can be no doubt that bias and prejudice continue to infect some parts of the law enforcement community, as they do all professions. During Jim Crow, not only did police officers too often fail to protect minority communities, but they sometimes joined in lynch mobs. We have come a long way since infamous images of police officers using dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs against peaceful civil rights protestors, but clearly there is need for deeper neighborhood engagement and training for law enforcement officials and community members to address bias and ensure equal procedural justice.

The Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of two other words: “danger” and “opportunity.” As we wait for the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case, danger may lie ahead, but we must also seize this extraordinary teachable moment. This is the time to commit to a meaningful conversation about structural racism and implicit bias, about building trust in police-community relations, and about how we can ultimately turn this tragic event into a catalyst for positive change.

We must allow ourselves the vulnerability to talk openly about our history, confronting it directly. We must examine our own biases. And we must demonstrate to the entire country, and indeed the world, that St. Louis is coming together so that our diversity, our differences, and our history make us stronger going forward.