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Bringing Ferguson into Context

Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old child, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Nearly everyday since, protestors have filled the streets of Ferguson demanding information and an investigation of the officer’s actions. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that to truly understand the events of that day we must consider both the social and historical contexts that surrounded them.

“You will find that the people doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, [they] always want to start the point in the middle.” Actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams said that on CNN while talking about the killing of Michael Brown an unarmed 18 year-old and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Williams sounds like a sociologist.

Sociology at it’s core is the scientific study of how the individual is shaped by society and how society is shaped by the individual. Sociologists believe that to truly understand an event like the killing of Michael Brown and the civil unrest that followed, you first have to place it within it’s social and historical context. Or put more simply, you can’t truly understand Michael Brown’s death if your analysis starts in 2014. Ferguson is bigger than one killing and bigger than a single town in Missouri.

If you’re not up on the news out of Ferguson, check out this helpful timeline of events and watch the video below to get caught up quickly.

The Social Context Surrounding Ferguson

Ferguson is a 21,000 person suburb of St. Louis that is predominantly Black (60%), highly segregated, and poor with one in four residents living below the poverty line as of 2012. The economic downturn of 2008 hit Ferguson particularly hard. The unemployment rate before the recession was less than 5%, but in the 2010–2012 time period it jumped to over 13%. For young African American men in the area, the economic situation was worse. As local columnist David Nicklaus reported, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent.”

Despite the fact that the majority of the residents of Ferguson are black, only 3 African Americans serve on the police force. This fact is more stark when we consider that African Americans account for 86% of all police stops and 92% of all arrests. Beyond law enforcement, the law makers are also predominantly white. The mayor, chief of police, and 5 of the 6 city council members are white.

The Historical Context Surrounding Ferguson

Your grand children are likely to ask you, “what was it like living through the prison years?” Right now, we are living through a policing and imprisonment explosion like we’ve never seen in the United States. No country in the world imprisons as many people or as high of a percentage of it’s citizens as we do. Nearly 7 million people are either in prison, on parole/probation, or otherwise under the control of the penal system. Of those affected by mass incarceration, they are overwhelmingly poor black and Hispanic men (for more see Alexander 2012).

The rise in mass incarceration is due in large part to the War on Drugs. We use that term to refer to sweeping changes in state and federal laws designed to “crack down” on drug use and sales. For instance, before the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act the maximum sentence for possession of any narcotic had been one year
imprisonment. After that law was passed, the death penalty was authorized for drug related offenses. The federal government injected millions of dollars into local police departments to increase drug arrests and created grant programs that offered big money to units that were able to secure the greatest number of arrests. These policy changes and thousands of others at the local, state, and federal level created the incarceration boom we are living through today.

To understand Ferguson we also need to keep in mind the historical legacy of racial housing segregation. “Until the late 1940s, blacks weren’t allowed to live in most suburban St. Louis County towns, kept out by restrictive covenants that the Supreme Court prohibited in 1948.” When African Americans were allowed to move into the suburbs, whites began to move farther and farther out from the city center in phenomenon known as “white flight”. As they left, they took with them their tax dollars and the resources needed for a community to thrive.

Today the city of St. Louis is the 9th most segregated city in the U.S. White flight continues to this day in Ferguson. As Philip Bump of the Washington Post reports, “In each of the census tracts that overlap Ferguson, the white population dropped, by a total of more than 5,000 people since 2000. And in each, the black population increased, by more than 3,000.”

Pulling Ferguson Into Focus

This article barely scratches the surface of the sociological analysis that could be done and is being done by sociologists and journalists. Many scholars dedicate their entire careers to understanding the social and historical contexts surrounding race, poverty, segregation, and law enforcement. But the take away point is this, every decision an individual makes is influenced by the laws, public policies, and institutions that surround her or him. Furthermore, what we do today is often the result of a chain reaction sent into motion decades or centuries earlier.

When we talk about Michael Brown’s death as an isolated case we ignore the social context that surrounded his life. When we talk about Ferguson as if it all started this year, we ignore a long history of inequality and injustice. We can’t pretend we don’t see the social and historical context and we should question the motives of anyone who would recommend we do.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How does reading about the social and historical context surrounding Ferguson affect your thinking about Michael Brown’s death and the protests that followed? Explain your answer.
  2. This article just scratches the surface of the social and historical contexts surrounding Ferguson, what are some of the aspects of our history not discussed in this article that could help us better understand Brown’s killing?
  3. Take a second and reflect on how who you are affects how you think about Ferguson. If you were a different race, economic class, age, and/or gender do you think that would affect how you reacted to the news of Michael Brown’s killing?
  4. Now check out this Pew study that looks at how age, race, and other social demographics affect perception of the news out of Ferguson. What do you think this evidence suggests (i.e. what’s it telling us)?