I have to say it was an email I never expected — from a producer for PBS television asking me if I’d like to participate in a televised town hall-style special in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted by Gwen Ifill, on the subject of race relations in “America after Ferguson.” (The show will air this Friday night at 8 PM EDT on PBS stations across the country. Record it and watch!) Apparently, the producer had read my American Spectator article, “Ferguson on Fire” and thought that I’d be a good representative of a “conservative” viewpoint without being a “bomb thrower” and without coming across as racist.
I agreed, of course.
It turned out that I was the only invited panelist (out of ten) who was overtly not a liberal, participating in front of a room full of several hundred people (almost all PBS-watching liberals) at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri—St. Louis.
The entire experience was interesting and informative, simultaneously uplifting and disheartening, and it gave me a chance to meet a few people whom I would likely never run across even in my more-political-than-average life — people whom I already consider friends despite our having, on the surface, approximately zero in common.
Let’s start with the event itself.
The invited panelists included the former police commissioner of Baltimore, the current police chief of Cincinnati, a former cop and prosecutor from New York (a self-described Progressive), a professor of “Africana” and gender studies from Rutgers (who was no fan of mine), a prominent civil rights attorney from Los Angeles who has spent years helping reform the LAPD, two young leaders of organizations aiming to increase black influence in policy and politics, a local rapper, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (who left shortly into the taping), and me.
Because the show will end up being an hour long, including pre-recorded interviews with “big thinkers” and others, the amount of time you’ll hear the panelists will be even shorter than we felt we had to speak, leaving some of us frustrated that we participated more in a series of sound bites rather than as part of a real dialogue.
Still, for those who watch the special, the conversation should be thought-provoking. For liberals, much of it will support their confirmation bias, starting with the opening montage of news clips that is distinctly non-neutral on the subject of Ferguson. For libertarians and conservatives, the show may be — as it was for me — an eye-opener when it comes to perceptions by the left (black and white alike) about the nature of racism in America today.
In particular, nearly every black person — invited guest or audience member — who spoke about racism used the word “system.” Some talked about a system designed to be racist since the importation of slavery into the United States; some talked slightly more specifically against education or law enforcement systems that they see as racist. Other than one mention of George Zimmerman (whose “racism” I do not believe has been proven, though he’s also not someone I’m interested in spending time defending), almost none of the conversation was about ordinary Americans — especially outside of law enforcement — being racist.
To emphasize the point of the system itself being racist, one person mentioned that he’s had encounters with black cops that were much worse than any encounter with white cops. Dozens of African-Americans, men and women, in the audience “uh-huh”ed their agreement. In other words, law enforcement itself is racist and the nature of the “system” creates racist behavior within its employees — or attracts employees who already feel that way, even if they’re black themselves.
When you learn about how St. Louis County and municipalities within it use the police to essentially steal from their poorest citizens, it’s easy to understand their view. (I suggest this in-depth must-read article by Radley Balko for the Washington Post and this piece in Mother Jonesthat should make your blood boil and leave you wondering who should really go to jail.)
It wasn’t only about law enforcement, of course, and the word “system” seemed to be used so broadly as to almost mean society itself.
I objected to that, noting that while racism, including institutional racism, does exist, constant finger-pointing at a “system” discourages people from looking in the mirror and considering their own share of responsibility for the persistent, if often localized, mistrust between blacks and whites, between blacks and cops, or any other race-based societal relationship that just isn’t working out very well. I also noted that my great-grandparents arrived in the United States well after the end of the Civil War and that I objected to characterizations so broad as to imply that if I am any part of the system — something that can mean anything to anyone — I am presumed to be functionally racist.
At this, the self-selected PBS audience literally laughed at me. Gwen Ifill, to her credit, while not saying that she thought I had a valid point, did tell the audience that I was representing the view of many Americans. The producers later told me that they were just glad I didn’t get booed; I was thinking I’d have preferred that, not that I took any of it personally.
This idea that “the system” — again whatever that means at any given moment — is inherently and perhaps permanently racist should be of great concern to politicians of all stripes. Perception is reality in politics, and this is a perception — as well as an occasional reality — that has no place in the United States.
The young woman who teaches at Rutgers, Brittany Cooper, was herself interesting, eloquent, and — perhaps tempering what I should say about her obvious intelligence — very much against anything I had to say. The most thought-provoking thing she said to me (prior to the show’s taping) was that “markets have always failed black people.” The policy implications of that view can’t be overstated and explain a lot about the terrible economic policy positions of many black politicians and opinion makers. I told Dr. Cooper — whose personal story of a strong mother educating Brittany out of the ghetto is itself uplifting — that most of what people call “free markets” in America today are far from it and that a misunderstanding of what is and isn’t a free market leads many people to mistrust “markets” even though they’ve almost never actually experienced one. As with most things I said, Dr. Cooper simply scoffed dismissively.
Some of the more disappointing, but entirely sincere, comments came from a local rapper, 29-year old “Tef Poe,” who said that the events in Ferguson created in him a deep animosity toward the police and toward government more broadly… far more than he ever felt before. It was suggested that he run for city council and try to make a difference; his answer was again that the system was so inherently corrupt that it basically doesn’t matter who sits in the chair. Even Sen. McCaskill tried to get him to change his view, but he remained tremendously cynical.
Still, he didn’t seem like a congenitally pessimistic guy and despite showing up in shorts, untied shoes, and a baseball hat that he wore backwards for much of the afternoon, Tef comes across as intelligent, thoughtful and sincere, a talented person even if undoubtedly a product of his environment… as he also did during the Ferguson protests.
A YouTube perusal of his videos should wake people up to the reality-perception of so many young black men in cities and towns across the country — and also make clear that the sorts of messaging and communication techniques that might work in Boulder or Peoria will have precious little impact in places like “North County,” Missouri. Especially if young blacks start voting more — far from likely in the short term given their view of “the system” — knowing how to talk to them will be as important as deciding what to say.
The other side of the coin came from the Harvard-educated civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who has made the reform of the LAPD her personal mission — with substantial success. Mentioning the successes of law enforcement reform in other cities such as Cincinnati, whose police chief was also on the panel, Ms. Rice said the country can have some optimism about police departments learning how to become more integrated with the areas they police, becoming part of the community rather than seen as an oppressive, or even simply an outside, force. It’s about creating and promoting leaders within law enforcement agencies who are truly committed to change and for the right reasons.
I hope she is right.
After the event, I spoke with quite a few people, being particularly interested in the current political thoughts of African-Americans. One major take-away for me from the many conversations: they were without exception tremendously disappointed in President Obama. There was a pervasive feeling that he “should have gotten more done” — especially while Democrats had complete control of Congress. Of course, what these people wanted done were probably things that I would have strongly objected to on both constitutional and economic grounds, but the takeaway for me was that Democrats should not count on anything close to the electoral turnout that they saw in 2012 or even 2010. Any poll, especially in states or congressional districts with large black populations, which models black turnout similar to those elections, will probably be wrong.
When I asked whether the election of our first black president was a strong argument against pervasive racism in America, they turned my expected answer on its head: They cared very little for the election itself and instead concluded that because President Obama has done so little for American blacks it proves that the “system” is so profoundly racist that it will inevitably co-opt anybody deeply involved in it. I heard this repeatedly stated, always with a sense of resignation rather than cynicism.
Finally, a personal note: Two of the panelists for “America After Ferguson” were directors of black-oriented political activist organizations. Rashad Robinson is Executive Director of Color of Change, a group co-founded by outspoken hater of capitalism and former Obama “green jobs czar” Van Jones. Phillip Agnew is the Executive Director of Florida-based Dream Defenders whose mission statement is to “develop the next generation of radical leaders to realize and exercise our independent collective power; building alternative systems and organizing to disrupt the structures that oppress our communities.”
When we first met in the “green room,” Rashad could see something approximating an eye roll when he told me that he was involved with Color of Change; he was therefore somewhat skeptical of me — a feeling that I certainly, if temporarily, reciprocated. Phil and I broke the ice a little more easily — talking about tattoos (of which he has several and I am thinking of getting one). But once it became clear to both of them that I’m not the enemy, not least because I share many of their views about police, the militarization of police, and the war on drugs, we had a conversation so interesting that I had my evening flight changed to the next morning so that I could hang out and drink with them. Turns out Rashad and I share an appreciation for bourbon; I’m not as big a fan of Phil’s favored cognac.
We met at a table in the hotel bar and starting talking about everything from Obama to the Tea Party to voting rights to personal stories. After about 15 minutes, a lady sitting at the bar walked the few feet to us and said how much she was enjoying overhearing a “real” conversation by people with different views. She was actually a rare Marin County Republican (Marin has three times as many Democrats as Republicans), sick and tired of fund-raising letters and emails from a GOP which she believes stands for very little these days (though still a better choice than the Democrats). It happened again later in the evening with a neurologist named Mike — himself a few sheets to the wind but still enjoying the debate — who bought a round of drinks and took himself away from watching Sunday Night Football in order to talk (or listen to) politics. Now that’s saying something.
If these random people at a St. Louis hotel bar are any representation of broader America, it shows a national intellectual starvation for ideas and real debate — and a real opening for a political party or major candidate willing and able to bring those, perhaps in bite-sized pieces, to the voting public. No such party exists in America today. As for individual candidates’ capabilities on this score, it remains to be seen; so far, Rand Paul is the only one who seems to be trying.
Rashad, Phil and I agree politically on perhaps five percent of issues. But speaking to them over drinks and burgers and fried ravioli was enlightening and, yes, fun. Much more fun than speaking to Boulder liberals for whom political disagreement means that you are not just misguided but a bad person.
My goal, though I realize it may be Quixotic, is to convince them and people who think (and perhaps look) like them that liberty and market-oriented solutions are the best for everyone, that real markets benefit the poor even more than the rich (are you listening, Brittany Cooper?), and that they need not always look to government and redistribution for answers. I may not succeed, but at least with Rashad and Phil I’d have a good time trying.
I encourage you to watch the PBS Special, “America After Ferguson,” this Friday evening.