Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Report from Ferguson: Lost Jobs, Lost Homes, Lost Lives

If there is one thing that people looking at Ferguson from the outside need to understand, it is the depth of the trauma experienced by that community.  It wasn't until visiting the city that I realized what a small town it really is.  With a population of 21,000 people, it is comparable in size to the small town where I grew up in Indiana, with a population of about 18,000.  In my hometown, we all pretty much knew everyone else.  

It isn't any different in Ferguson.  Many of the people knew Mike Brown personally, or, at least, know someone who knew him.  His death is a very personal loss for Ferguson residents.  The "normal" trauma of grief was exacerbated by the way in which his body was treated: left uncovered in the street for four hours on a hot August day and then retrieved by a police car rather than an ambulance.  This contempt for human dignity has left a deep psychic wound.  The grief and sense of being treated with disdain was further compounded by the militarized police response to protests.  

Of course, these events were simply the last straw for people of color who bear the everyday slights of racism.  I get that.  What I didn't realize, living in the economic bubble of San Francisco, is the level of economic distress affecting Ferguson.  

Last Saturday morning, my colleagues from San Francisco and I joined a group of volunteers canvassing the neighborhoods of Ferguson and nearby Dellwood to register people to vote.  I was shocked to discover that every fourth house was empty and boarded up due to mortgage foreclosures.  These are nice middle class homes.  I've since learned that 50% of homes in Ferguson are underwater:  the owners owe more on the existing mortgage than the home is actually worth.  Nationwide, the rate is 17%.   

The African-American community in St. Louis County is still living in a recession.  Although the overall unemployment rate in the County was 6.2% in 2012, 26% of African-Americans were unemployed.  Today, the rate of unemployment there among young white men ages 16-24 years-old is 16%, but it is a whopping 47% for black men in that age group.  

Lost jobs, lost homes, lost lives: this is the deeper wound that underlies the weight of grief people feel in response to the killing of Mike Brown.  The work of healing the wound of inequality will not happen overnight, and it needs to begin today.  Black lives matter.

The first step is to recognize the reality behind the grief and anger that fuels the Ferguson rebellion.  This is the reality experienced by people of color in many communities across our nation.  It is not just a problem in Ferguson or St. Louis County.  That is why Ferguson represents an iconic moment in our history: it is a wake-up call for all of us to renew our commitment to the work of economic justice and racial reconciliation.  

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