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Lessons from Ferguson

The fatal shooting of the unarmed teen sparked protests, looting and a whole lot of soul searching about race. Credit: Credit: Paul Sableman/Flickr

I've sat down every morning for the past few weeks determined to write something about the Ferguson, Missouri calamity only to end up in a seriously demoralized state. At one moment in my peripatetic career I was administrative assistant to the Detroit commissioner of police. The last month of that 18-month assignment saw Detroit break out in an episode of civic chaos which turned out to be the worst of a five-year-long saga of urban uprisings that occurred all across the nation in the 1960s.

As I read the news from Ferguson, I couldn't help reliving the experience of Detroit, and lamenting how little a half-century has taught us. Police departments, ever since 9/11, have been armed to the teeth and too many of them itch for the opportunity to try out their military hardware. The Boston PD showed restraint during the Marathon bombing, but there are hundreds of law enforcement agencies that are equipped far beyond the capacity of their training and judgment.

I doubt that we will ever have an accurate account of what occurred in Ferguson. In Detroit, we had to contend with two daily newspapers, a handful of weeklies and three television stations. None provided today’s 24-7 coverage.

In contrast, I doubt if there is anyone left in Ferguson who hasn't been interviewed by a reporter and had his or her account become part of the folklore that is beginning to surround the shooting. No grand jury, federal investigation or other inquiry will be able to sift through it all and sort things out.

The polarization of public opinion, as indicated by Pew and other polls, suggests that the only thing we can say for certain about this tragedy is that views of it are becoming calcified along the predictable racial-political divide. That, for me, is the ultimate tragedy.

I look back over my eight decades and wonder whether we've made any progress towards bridging this chasm.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times contained one devastating, irrefutable fact. Overwhelming numbers of African-American children who were born between the late 1950s and the early 1980s are in far worse shape economically than their parents. Sixty percent of black children whose parents were in the top half of income distribution during this 30-year period have fallen into the bottom half as working-age adults.

My own family reflects this sad reality. The difference in income between me and my two adult daughters mirrors the trend highlighted by the NYT’s op-ed. The age-old American expectation that our children will do better economically than we have simply doesn't hold true for this huge swath of Americans.

Those of us who came to adulthood in the ‘50s entered the workforce during a period when black progress was measured by the "firsts" that were happening all around us. I can't begin to count the number of high school buddies (male and female) who became "the first" black person to get this job or work in that department or get promoted to some position that black employees had never held. There was this huge surge in economic opportunities for black Americans of the sort that whites took for granted. But it seems to have lasted for one generation only.

What went wrong? There are as many answers as there are observers. My feeling is that a seismic shift occurred in our society during the ‘50s and ‘60s, a shift that allowed my generation to be the first — and perhaps the only — black cohort to enjoy and take advantage of what turned out to be a fleeting rupture in this country’s long established patterns and practices of racial discrimination.

But this change happened just as the Industrial Age was giving way to the new economic realities of the Digital Era, which has ushered in a whole new and different set of workplace demands and expectations. My children's generation is the first to contend with this new economic order, and we are witnessing the throes and dislocations of their struggle to do so. 

Ferguson and its aftermath are part of the grimmer aspects of this struggle, just as Detroit was 50 years ago. Progress cannot be stopped, but we ought to find less disruptive and more humane ways to deal with its consequences.

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