Like many other Americans, I’ve followed events in Furgerson, Mo. since Officer Darren Wilson gunned down unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown. So many visual accounts of that action brought back a lot of personal memories—most specifically of the 1992 reaction in Los Angeles when police who beat Rodney King III were acquitted of wrong doing in the near fatal attack
That was before cell phones made everyone a potential documentarian of police aggression. But there were video cameras and a nearby resident caught the action on tape through his apartment window. That film clip sparked local, national and international outrage. So when the verdict came in, that outrage first ignited tempers and then Central Los Angeles as residents turned to protest that soon became violent.
Before the riot was over, 54 people were dead, thousands arrested and millions of property damaged sustained. It was the most costly uprising in national history. But not the first.
The more than 100 race “riots” of 1967 produced the renown Kerner Commission report ordered by President Lyndon Banes Johnson when he named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder. They gave the nation the most sweeping analysis of US race relations and institutionalized inequities ever documented. As a result , 50 years ago Johnson called for a “war against poverty.” It was a battle left unfunded and quickly shelved.
Since then we’ve seen other protest scripts based on similar reasons: Structured disadvantage, resentment, denial, selective police misconduct, officer over reaction in excessive force, communities targeted for violence. Austin too has its examples of underfunded schools, targeted displacement of minority communities, the ‘invisiblizing” of low-income people pushed beyond the outskirts of our city and further from jobs. Austin also has its list of shame--its unarmed minority youth victims of police shootings.
Today Ferguson struggles to balance the fragile precipice between insisting on the right to be heard and police demands for control. Meanwhile, a broad array of experts provide formulas for peace and/or justice. Many make familiar calls for better police training, elimination of the militarization of police forces and closer community interaction as part of routine protocol. But I cannot help but wonder in regards to this list where history went.
We refuse to learn from the past. We call instead for bigger guns and more rapid deployment. Then too often police look down their gun barrels at people they do not know either personally or as participants in the nation’s development. Instead, stereotypes, often fueled by media, “action” films and digital games reinforce those images.
Once embedded in the culture, stereotypes are hard to eliminate. But we do know that education helps. This may be useful to remember when reformers seek to exclude ethnic studies from curriculum. Often those courses are the only ones that augment traditional history classes that can be scant on minority experience. But the time to learn history in context is long before career choices are made. It should start in elementary school when children begin to learn US history through the celebration of holidays and heroes.
Much more comprehensive courses should be mandated in high school and college so we come to know and appreciate the enrichment provided by diversity. And so future law enforcers come to their jobs with a greater understanding of the underlying issues. And strong critical thinking skills that deconstruct stereotypes and make possible empathy for people whose American experience may be different.
Today there are right wing calls to eliminate this information. Meanwhile, in one misguided drive, some jingoists mount efforts to eliminate interdisciplinary, ethnographic “ethnic studies”—African-American, American-Indian, Asian-American and Mexican-American courses that seek to show students a more inclusive U.S. reality with its triumphs and tragedies.
Some opponents even foster a false claim that by learning anything except a whitewashed version of American history we risk undermining patriotism. Talk about sticking one’s head in the sand!
The most recent battles over text adoption provide cases in point. In both 2010 and 2012 the conservative Texas Board of Education changed content to eliminate, obscure or manicure some key historical events. Those making those decisions are not academic experts. In 2010 when the Board refused to include Latino figures as role models, no historians, economists or sociologists served on the Board or were consulted. African-American figures were also limited.
As long as tragedies like Ferguson repeat and victims live through violent components of American history, we will watch these replays ever more rapidly on digitized reality. Nevertheless, as a society we often seem repeatedly surprised by the anger generated by educational inequity, vanished jobs, ever more income disparities, lost affordable housing and racial and ethnic profiling of those targeted.
We seem not to hear our fellow Americans until these events replay and coverage lets protesters speak for themselves. And even that often depends on where one turns for information and perspective. Minority news publications are now the most robust in the nation. New America Media website can introduce readers to those voices. The organization’s directory lists 2500 publications and describes itself as “the most comprehensive listing of ethnic media, America’s fastest growing segment of journalism reaching more than 60 million Americans.”
If we knew ourselves and the distribution of disadvantage better it would help us become a stronger, more just nation.
Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, now a University of Texas professor emeritus was the creator of Tejas, a publication produced by students in her Community Journalism course,. It was awarded the 1996 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for Outstanding Journalism. Formerly she was an associate editor of the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times.