Beyond the blame

Sam Smith

Following the coverage of the SAE incident and the Ferguson situation I have been increasingly struck by how much time is being spent blaming someone and how little on moving towards a solution.

To be sure there have been exceptions, such as Rev. Traci Blackman who told CNN last week:

I was out here last night after the vigil and perhaps there were tense moments before I arrived, but I got here about 9:00 and I stayed until the end, and I was amazed at what happened. What I saw were police officers in a much more lax position than they have been before.

I saw police officers engaging with protesters and protesters engaging with police. I saw protesters able to exercise their rights and police officers not being threatened by the exercising of those rights. I believe that we were out here last night as community and as one humanity. Yes, we might not all share the same vision of what should be happening, but there was something different about last night and then about 11:30 the protesters gathered in a circle, said some chants, some encouraging words, and everyone went home.

So, in Ferguson, like in Fergusons all over the United States, we all have to get it. And I did see last night, I’m grateful for the response of the officers and I am grateful that they allowed the protesters to exercise their rights without aggressiveness.

This is the way one talks if you’re trying to move a difficult situation forward. You find the little positives and slide them towards the next step. But it’s an approach that doesn’t have a lot of appeal in an America that believes it is far more important to punish and condemn than to mediate, reconstruct and restore. And in an America where its news channels constantly feature military experts but hardly ever those skilled in building peace.

And so we have some teenager SAE members singing a nasty and cruel song being lumped with a cop who is part of a massively prejudiced department and wrongfully killed a black man.

The university expels the students and closes down the fraternity and now many feel much better because the respectable role in such situations these days is to be right. We can leave the expansion of rights to another time.

This attitude is widespread in our culture. For example, we have dramatically expanded our criminal law, led by a brutally counterproductive war on drugs.

And in the past four decades, America’s liberals have come up with few significant new measures or programs of the sort that characterized the New Deal and Great Society, preferring instead to demonstrate their virtue by trashing the very constituencies they need in order to change the course of our politics. Thus we hear increasing talk of “white privilege” from those who appear unaware that there are, for example, many more whites than blacks on food stamps.

Cross cultural alliances are rarely sought (with some marked exceptions like the Moral Mondays movement). And the evils of the past and the present drown out consideration of how to reach a better future..

Even in the Christian church, there has been a powerful drift from the practice of religious values in public matters to the search for personal salvation in which sanctified belief soars in importance over socially positive behavior.

What these phenomenon have in common is that condemnation and punishment take precedent over reform and decent practice. Our honor is created not by our acts but by highlighting the faults of others.

And so, in the case of Ferguson, there has been little discussion of how restorative justice and community policing might change the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens. Or what we might learn from the past from places like Ireland and South Africa that recreated themselves after decades of pain . Or how you build a police department that serves, rather than perpetually suspects, a community.

And at Oklahoma University there is no attention given to the fact that if a 19 year old thinks it’s fun to sing a racist song then perhaps his education lacked something, including at the university level.

Further, few seem bothered that a teenager finds himself in the same public metaphor as a whole urban police department.

Partly because our media likes to keep it simple, we often skip the solution part of the story, creating instead easy villains. And the media tends to ignore the difference between people with real power and those who have been miseducated by them. Some time ago I noted this in an article:

Many years ago, I was surprised when David Carr – now with the New York Times but then with Washington’s City Paper – blew up at me when I told him that having moved from covering national affairs to editing a community paper [in 1960s Washington] I had to learn how to be more gentle with the folks I covered., He called me condescending and shortly hung up. But I still believe it. You write about ordinary folks differently than you write about presidents.

That’s not true of much of our major media which will take its villains wherever it can find them. And, without press aides and a deeply embedded Washington news corps, the misguided student or the misinformed Tea Party member makes an easy target. So you go after them and forget about what those running OU or Missouri have failed to notice and failed to do.

As longtime journalist Djelloul Marbrook put it the other day, “Let the press not pose as innocent observer and enlightened commentator here. The American press has substituted polarization for inquiry. The American public entertains a broad consensus on an array of major issues that is not reflected in the press or in our political leadership. The press calls reportage that tears the fabric of society journalism, but real journalism requires inquiry, and that requires money, courage and commitment, none of which our press lords are willing to devote. Instead get rants and smart-ass opinion, always emphasizing what divides us… The press had decades to expose corruption and racism in Ferguson, but it waited until violence gave it an opportunity not to enlighten but to incite. This is not journalism, this is gasoline on the flames.”

For my part, having covered Washington from its segregated days through the election of its first black mayor I know, as a practical matter, that it’s not about punishing or blaming the past but creating a better future. When I started as a reporter in DC, I heard white cops use the N word as well as teenagers. And as things changed for the better, it became not about saints vs. sinners, but about so many getting wiser and learning new things about others.

Back in 1997, I put it this way in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

And so we come to the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.

For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes — “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time — often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor — accentuating those distinctions.

In the process we reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power, and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship — like not double-parking or paying your taxes.

Martin Luther King said once:

Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.

Sorry, Martin. Our approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely the absence of malice.


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