One winter during middle school I went shopping with my mother. The reason I remember this shopping trip so vividly is this: while walking outside, I had a hood over my head because of the cold weather.
I remember my mother quickly noticing my wardrobe before we entered the store and saying, “Don’t ever wear your hood up before you go into a store. I know you would never hurt a fly, but other people don’t and I never want to give anyone the opportunity to think negatively because of a hood on your head.”
After that instance, I always started to think about my surroundings and how I am perceived by people, known and unknown. I won’t lie, I’ve been followed in retail stores and had racial slurs said towards me around me or in my company. I understand that there is a fine line between America’s perception of equality and the unequal reality that our nation faces.
Ferguson, Mo., stands as not just a sad encounter between law enforcement and the public, but a reflection of our nation’s broken perceptions of race. Michael Brown grew up in a community ravaged by inequality. St. Louis County (home of Ferguson, Mo.) ranks 15th in a Pecand.com list of the most black-white segregated areas in the nation. The Department of Education also reported data showing that in recent budget cuts, Missouri decreased funding for nonwhite students by $75 per pupil with every 10 percent increase in its non-white student population, putting Missouri 34th out of 48 states in school funding fairness.
The most jarring fact I have read following Michael Brown’s death is that in a city where a majority of its residents are black, zero members of the Ferguson City Council are black, and 94 percent of the police force is white. These figures paint a story of a city racially, politically and socially divided. Wealth and power catered to white residents and Black residents found themselves stranded in a cycle of marginalization.
It is easy to say after this instance that dialogue and greater inclusion are needed, but after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown all within two years, our efforts should only be focused on action.
I implore Black Americans in Ferguson and other urban areas to be more civically involved. The reason why Ferguson’s hierarchy of power was so disproportionate to the community is because the community’s majority failed to participate. The Chicago Tribune reported that Ferguson’s 2013 local election only saw 6 percent of its Black residents vote.
In addition to government, residents need to put greater emphasis on repairing the fabric of the community. Racial inequality affects everything within most Black urban areas, but it can be combated by a robust citizenry.
Residents need to invest dollars into businesses and leaders that put local interests first and do not wish to simply take Ferguson resources out of the area. In addition to economic involvement, Black residents need to create a social network through community engagement that puts more responsibility of the community’s health in the hands of the everyday citizen.
In addition to the Black community, I implore the rest of the nation to face the truth about our racial predicament. Brown v. Board of Education, the “I Have a Dream” speech and the election of President Barack Obama did not instantly end centuries of racial animosity. It may feel awkward for non-black people to discuss race with people outside of their own, but it is better to embrace awkwardness than to conduct life in a cloud of ignorance.
The state of Black America is weak, and it is up to everyone to redefine the ways in which we view those who often do not have enough political or economic power to change the system on their own. Everyone, regardless of racial background, needs to look at the way our society operates for people like the residents of Ferguson, citizens of Over-the-Rhine, or other urban, blighted areas and ask: would you be okay if you had to live in their situation every day, not just for this lifetime, but for decades of institutionalized inequality? I would hope not.
I feel I may never be able to walk around with my hood up and not feel uncomfortable about the negative connotations my appearance may bring. I will continue to be uncomfortable to make others comfortable, but I will not be passive and let my voice fall by the wayside while hundreds of young men and women die in unjust situations.
Every life is precious, and every voice is important. We should not be complacent with inequality. Instead, we should challenge its power by changing the way we and those around us embrace diversity within our everyday lives.
I end with a Bible verse that I work to reflect through my actions and encounters with others. I hope everyone incorporates this into our daily walk as we move closer to repairing our broken union. Ephesians 5:31-32: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
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