The fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, this August triggered weeks of riots and looting, as well as nonstop media coverage. The press quickly developed a formula for reporting on the “unrest,” as the media still call such violence: select some aspect of Ferguson’s political or civic culture; declare that feature racist, by virtue of its being associated with Ferguson; disregard alternative explanations for the phenomenon; blame riots on it. Bonus move: generalize to other cities with similar “problems.”
Some examples: Ferguson’s population is two-thirds black, but five of its six city council members are white, as is its mayor. Conclusion: this racial composition must be the product of racism. Never mind that blacks barely turn out to vote and field practically no candidates. Never mind that the mayor ran for a second term unopposed. Is there a record of Ferguson’s supposed white power structure suppressing the black vote? None has been alleged. Did the rioters even know who their mayor and city council representatives were? The press didn’t bother to ask. But this “problem” is disturbingly widespread, in the media’s eyes: MOSTLY BLACK CITIES, MOSTLY WHITE CITY HALLS, announced a New York Times front-page story on September 29, complete with a sophisticated scatter-graph visual aid.
Example: Ferguson issues fines for traffic violations; 20 percent of its municipal budget comes from such receipts. If people with outstanding fines or summons don’t appear in court, a warrant for their arrest is issued. Conclusion: this is a racist system. The city is deliberately financing its operations on the backs of the black poor. The only reason that blacks are subject to fines and warrants, according to the media, is that they are being hounded by a racist police force. “A mostly white police force has targeted blacks for a disproportionate number of stops and searches,” declared Time on September 1. What is the evidence for such “targeting?” Time provides none. Might blacks be getting traffic fines for the same reason that whites get traffic fines—because they broke the law? The possibility is never contemplated. The most frequently summonsed traffic offense is driving without insurance, according to the New York Times’s “exposé” of Ferguson’s traffic-fine system. Perhaps the Times’s editors would be blasé about being hit by an uninsured driver, but most drivers would be grateful that the insurance requirement is being enforced. Might poor blacks have a higher rate of driving without insurance than other drivers? Not relevant to know, apparently.
The next highest categories of driving infraction are blasting loud music out your car and driving with tinted windows. Attend police-community meetings in poor areas and you will regularly hear complaints about cars with deafening sound systems. Should the police ignore such complaints? Are they ignoring similar complaints in white areas because they want to give whites a pass? Do Ferguson’s white and black drivers blast loud music from their cars at the same rate? We never learn. Tinted windows pose a possibly lethal threat to the police during traffic stops, since they prevent officers from assessing the situation inside the car before approaching. Ignoring this infraction puts officers’ lives at risk. Should the police nevertheless do so? Such is the implication, if doing so would mean fewer fines for black motorists. The New York Times quotes a victim of the racist Ferguson traffic-enforcement system, who was fined for driving without a license. Why was his license suspended—was he driving drunk? Did he hit someone? We will never know. What is the crime rate in the black areas of Ferguson? Also something that the mainstream press is not interested in finding out.
But the most ubiquitous “Ferguson is racist” meme was the most familiar: the police force is too white. Four of Ferguson’s 53 officers are black. This imbalance must be the result of racism and must itself cause racist enforcement activity. How many qualified black applicants to the force applied and were rejected? Not an interesting question, apparently.
The “too-white police force” meme, which the New York Times generalized into another front-page article (MOSTLY WHITE FORCES IN MOSTLY BLACK TOWNS, September 10), complete with another impressive set of graphs, is of particular interest in light of the federal government’s current investigation of New York City’s sprawling Rikers Island jail complex. In August, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a report denouncing the “deep-seated culture of violence” among Rikers corrections officers towards adolescent inmates. He accused guards of handcuffing juvenile inmates to gurneys and beating them. Rikers has been bedeviled by such claims of officer abuse of inmates for years. The resulting problem for the “abusive white cops” meme is that the Rikers’ officer force is about two-thirds black. (New York’s population is 23 percent black; no one has complained about the racial imbalance among Rikers guards.) This August, the Detroit Police Department emerged from 11 years of federal oversight for alleged abuse of civilians, including a pattern of unjustified shootings. The Detroit force, too, is about two-thirds black. The U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation of the New Orleans Police Department in 2010 for a pattern of civil rights violations; in 2012, the Justice Department imposed on the New Orleans PD the most expansive consent decree in the nation to try to rein in the alleged unconstitutional behavior of its officers, the majority of whom are black.
Now perhaps these civil rights allegations against these majority black forces are trumped up. But if so, perhaps similar allegations against majority white forces are, too. Or maybe the race of officers has little to do with whether they can police fairly.
The facts in the Ferguson shooting remain unknown. A videotape captured the 300-pound Brown committing a strong-arm robbery minutes before his encounter with the police. Brown’s supporters claim that officers stopped him for walking in the middle of the street and then shot him in cold blood, either in his back or when his hands were up. The Ferguson police department has not released the officer’s account of the shooting, but the officer’s supporters allege that Brown had fought viciously with him while resisting arrest. A grand jury is under enormous pressure to charge Officer Darren Wilson with murder for shooting Brown, with the usual threats of even more vicious riots to come should the grand jury fail to deliver an indictment. Officers have been shot at in and around Ferguson, violence which the authorities hastily discounted as related to the ongoing protests; death threats against officers have been made. Whether or not an uncontested account of the incident will ever emerge, it is certain that the media spin on Ferguson itself has been driven by facile and ultimately dangerous preconceptions.