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Commentary: Facts matter in Ferguson

Photo by Newsweek

As Leonard Pitts Jr, claimed, the Ferguson riots “can be an act of outcry, a scream of rage.”  Impoverished black communities throughout America have a great deal to be enraged about quite apart from Michael Brown’s death. Their public schools are totally inadequate and there  are no jobs for their high school graduates.

If this recession had followed the average of the ten post-WWII recessions, there would be 13.9 million more jobs in America. The real median income of African-American households has fallen by 9.5% since 2008. It is now below the  level it was in 1968 when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty. In the next lowest  quintile, what used to be called “working class”, income has fallen 6.5% since President Obama came to office. Middle-class income has also fallen. The government tells us there is no inflation, but prices in the grocery stores are rising rapidly.

For over six years this nation has been taxing the “rich” to give to the poor in the name of social  justice. Is it social justice when 60% of the population is made worse off? Or have the poor been betrayed by the very government that purports to be protecting them?

The protests in Ferguson are also about violence in our streets and that violence is spreading like  a cancer. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens against violence from other  citizens and from foreign enemies. The police may well be responsible for some of that violence,  but a young black man is more likely to die a violent death in Chicago at the hand of another black man, than he would fighting for his country in Afghanistan. Every year, 5,000 young black men are  being killed, and while 100 (2%) of them are meeting their deaths at the hand of police, over 90% of those are black on black deaths.

So yes, everything possible should be done to improve and humanize community policing. “Broken window” policing under New York mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg brought New York’s violent crime rate plummeting relative to cities like Chicago. But stronger families and communities are also needed.

Recent Oregonian and Skanner articles reported on Portland community groups working to stop gang violence. Judging from these articles, African-American women and clergy are reservoirs of strength and courage in the on-going battle against street violence. Unfortunately it takes only a small minority of violent people to destroy a whole community.

Do the facts about Michael Brown’s death make a difference? They certainly do in a nation which honors the rule of law. Officer Wilson’s guilt or innocence depends on what he and Michael Brown actually did in the span of a very few minutes. The street is rife with rumors, but it is only in a court of law that there is any hope that the facts will be established. In America, police are not guilty simply because they are police, and 18-year-old black boys are not guilty simply because they are 18-year-old black boy.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the guilt and innocence of individuals is not at issue. The protests in Ferguson are about competing “narratives” and not about the facts of the case.

In such situations, the police, in the interests of peace and their own physical safety, may withdraw in the hopes that without a police presence things will settle down. But if things don’t settle down, what then?

Our hearts go out to all those good people, the mothers and fathers and clergy who are fighting for calm in Missouri. They are people of great courage and faith in the goodness of humanity. But there can be no true resolution until the enormous social and economic problems that are eating away at our nation have been successfully addressed.

We have had almost 50 years of the War on Poverty. It may have advanced the condition of the middle class of all races, but it has not benefited the poor of any race. Their situation is worse than it was in 1968. The ideological chums of so many of the protesters in Ferguson have created even greater inequality and even greater poverty. This nation is headed in the wrong direction.

We will continue going in the wrong direction until we can strengthen our families, churches, and communities, improve our schools, and grow our economy. If big government could achieve these goals, the War on Poverty would have done so.

It is individual Americans working together that can build stronger families and stronger communities. It is individual Americans working together who can start businesses and create jobs. And it is individual Americans who can vote for better government.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Chana Cox, Ph.D.

Chana Cox Ph.D. is a Lewis and Clark Senior Lecturer Emerita. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in philosophy and a B.A. from Reed in mathematics. At Lewis and Clark she taught courses in philosophy, history, business, political science and the core. Her published works include Liberty: God's Gift to Humanity, Reflections on the Logic of the Good, and A River Went out of Eden.

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