Joshua Fortunatus

Unedited and barely proofread musings on music and other things

Ferguson & False Equivalencies

When a tragedy such as the one that occurred in Ferguson, MO this summer enters the public discourse, there is a natural inclination to make sense of what happened by comparing or contrasting the event to past experiences. This is not surprising since virtually all of our decisions are extensions of or departures from precedents. In other words, we take the information we know and then apply that knowledge to the current situation.

There is a popular idea among people who work in analytics and statistics: data never lies but conclusions may vary. Let’s take a look at an example. A baseball player has a .300 batting average and hit 5 home runs over the course of a season. Another baseball player hits .275 with 40 home runs. Your friend might say that the the first player is a better hitter because he has a higher average. You might say the second player is a better hitter because what he might lack in base hitting ability, he more than makes up for in power so when he does hit, he does more damage. The data hasn’t changed from one observation to the next yet two people are reaching two different conclusions. (All else being equal, the second player is a better hitter.)

Brown and Wilson

Ferguson offers similar issues to its observers. We’re all seeing the same events unfold and the same news reported but for many reasons, we reach different conclusions. This also extends to how we interpret past events, even if we’re not given the opportunity to arrive at conclusions independently and they’re taught to us the same way in history class.

Without knowing it, we rush to find ways to discredit and downplay the event with declarations like “this is no different than what we’ve seen before.” At this point, we run into a logical fallacy known as false equivalence.

We all know the most recognized idiom that represents false equivalence (“that’s like comparing apples to oranges”) but when a subject as nuanced as race relations is involved, the lines tend to become blurred to its observers. The blurry area is where the fear, uncertainty and anger reside and their collective polarity repel and cast out rational thought and objectivity.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of posts and articles shared written about a black man killing a white man or couple simply because of race. People will point to that and say, “why isn’t anybody talking about race when it’s a black man killing white people?” Those of you who know me know that I don’t have a militant or separatist bone in my body. I’ve never aligned with the teachings of Malcolm X or the Black Separatist movement so it’s no surprise that I don’t condone the kind of violence the aforementioned story speaks to. That’s a senseless crime that all people should be angry about and never want to see.

The difference with Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, though, is that this wasn’t a senseless crime. Mike Brown was not just a black man and Darren Wilson is not just a white cop. Each are symbols, deserved or otherwise. Mike Brown represents – after 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK, Strom Thurman – an oppressed minority. Darren Wilson represents a system that endorsed and entitled white people to be the benefactors of such ideologies, movements and people.

Even now, we see how black people are treated differently by the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. In Cleveland last week, a black 12-year-old was shot and killed by a Cleveland cop in a public park. Below is an image taken from the Twitter account of Nathan Jurgenson, an editor for the New Inquiry. Jurgenson took the screenshot from an article (with embedded video) released by the Editorial Board of cleveland.com.

The cop’s story doesn’t align with the video in this case so it appears the cop is lying about what happened. Does this represent all cops? Does Darren Wilson? Not at all. But it does happen to black people more often than white people. In fact, black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. The people tasked with the privilege of serving and protecting are doing so discriminately. When someone – anyone – feels like they don’t have any options left, they become desperate and helpless. It’s a singularly lonely feeling. Throw in the fact that black people’s prison sentences are 20% longer for similar crimes than white people (and Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s much criticized handling of the case) and what we have is racial bias embedded in the system.

Are there more cops like Sergeant Bret Barnum? I believe so. The image below is powerful and hopeful and should be a reminder that compassion can break down barriers and get us to the where we want to be, as long as we allow it.

Credit: Johnny Nguyen, AP

Credit: Johnny Nguyen, AP

Getting back to the point of this post. A senseless crime – any senseless crime – does not equate to institutional racism and bias. Any tragedy fueled by race does not automatically have the same context. The black person that killed the white couple was not a white cop just like the white couple was not black. Inherently, race is more nuanced and getting to the heart of it is not simply looking at the most basic elements. We all can do better. It’s not us against them. It’s every one of us for everyone else.

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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