In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois shared with the world “the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” His groundbreaking treatise The Souls of Black Folk foretold that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
Obviously, this problem persists in the Twenty First Century, as well.
The current crisis in the small town of Ferguson near St. Louis in Missouri is a good example.
The scenario is depressingly familiar and the police shooting on Saturday is a replay of the same old movie anywhere in America. As usual, the official version is in sharp contrast with accounts given by eyewitnesses who saw a white officer shoot and kill Michael Brown, 18.
So, instead of dropping their son off to start classes at a technical college Monday, Brown’s parents “are having to plan his funeral,” in the words of their attorney Benjamin Crump.
Given the failure of the police to be upfront on the incident and the fact that Brown’s body was left in the street for several hours, it is not surprising that tensions are still running high.
There is, of course, no excuse for violence as a response. But, however regrettable, recent history has shown that some authorities are jarred out of racist insensitivity only by a street uprising. That has been the experience in many places, including Miami-Dade County in the 1980s – though it did not prevent Miami police officers from killing some nine unarmed young black men within months of one another in questionable circumstances a quarter-century later.
But while there is power in taking to the streets, there is even more power in taking to the voting booth. Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are around 65 percent black, yet the mayor and five of the six city council members are white, six of the school board members are white and one is a Latino and the police chief and 50 of the 53 sworn police officers are white. News reports indicate there is a long, sustained history of intense racism in this town. The only reason must be the majority black population have withdrawn from the institutions of government and, thus, have handed over political power to the white minority.
The NAACP and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network are right to be appealing for calm in Ferguson but they must also woo residents to engage the system, register to vote and show up at the polls at the earliest opportunity.
Then the people can dismantle the neo-apartheid regimes that preside over their town and school district and take ownership of their lives.