Ferguson and the Damage Caused by Institutional Racism

Barack Obama’s appeals for calm were unsuccessful. There was an outburst of violence in the small Missouri town of Ferguson on Monday shortly after the grand jury decision not to charge the white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African-American on August 9, 2014. The questionable way the law enforcement, political and judicial authorities handled the situation, together with the surrounding media frenzy, fueled the profound anger of a black community that had been hoping, through the indictment of the police officer Darren Wilson, to be given at least some recognition, to make them feel that they fully belong to American society.

The fatal confrontation between a white police officer and a young African American may be just one more example of the difficult relationship between two worlds that co-exist, without really knowing each other. But it’s much more than that. In a country where, according to the first black president of the United States, “tremendous progress” has been made in race relations at the individual level since the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement and the removal of the Jim Crow discrimination laws, the relationship between white and black people continues to be blighted by the scourge of institutional racism. The phenomenon has been rife for decades and continues to cause damage today.

Public policy at federal and local level, which discriminates in the area of housing and urban planning, and even had the approval of Democratic presidents like Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, has contributed to the segregation of large cities and suburban areas. Created in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration has largely encouraged the development of crime-ridden black ghettos, by only granting preferential mortgage loans to whites to move into nice homogeneous neighborhoods. The criminal justice system, which disproportionately condemns and incarcerates black petty criminals, adds further to frustrations.

Ferguson’s outburst is that of a community severely affected by unemployment and poverty, and unable to extricate itself from the situation via the highly segregated school system. That is why Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree believes that compensation for damage caused by public policy to African Americans is justified and could take the form of large-scale investment in education. But America will not get out of the rut of institutional racism unless it revises its city planning policies, which perpetuate outdated segregationist practices.

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