Over the past year, the Ferguson Commission has met to discuss and study racial and economic gaps in St. Louis with the goal of proposing policy recommendations intended to address these issues. The Commission was formed at the behest of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and was comprised of community leaders, elected officials, and citizens. This week, the committee released its final report, and in doing so unmasked evidence of significant racial inequality and systemic racism in St. Louis. The committee narrowed its primary focus on four “signature priorities” in the following categories:
1. Justice For All—The finding here calls for massive police reform including increased bias and sensitivity training, standardized protocols for addressing mass protests, de-militarizing the response to protest, as well as greater accountability with respect to police use of force.
2. Youth At the Center—This portion of the report essentially advocates for better support for the city’s youth. 1 in 5 children in the greater St. Louis area are born into poverty, with hunger remaining an issue of great significance. The study also noted that schools could do more in terms of providing safe environments that support healthy students and re-examining disciplinary policies that adversely affect Black children at disproportionate rates.
3. Opportunity to Thrive—The Commission identified many of the external factors affecting quality of life and contributing to racial inequality in and around St. Louis. Issues like a fair minimum wage, equal housing opportunities, and access to employment were all addresses.
4. Racial Equity—The final signature priority was essentially a catch-all that weaved together the other priorities with the common theme of promoting equality and its benefits.
The report itself is sound from a point of information, statistics, and factual support. If someone wanted to feign ignorance, or claim not to believe or understand the presence of racism and its effects on St. Louis and surrounding communities, this report would offer as much factual ammunition as will be found. Still, for our community, the report only validates what has been said for decades not only in Missouri but, across America.
And, that’s problematic on several levels.
We have seen this script play out on a host of different occasions. It is a function of the cycle of extremity. A racially charged event takes place. That event is followed by protest. Eventually, for many of the wrong reasons, that protest begins to attract media attention. The media attention forces elected officials to make some sort of statement to address the media attention and public concern. This ultimately results in a task force, committee, commission, or some sort of study. And then, very little happens to change anything.
This study isn’t the first. It isn’t even the first study on Ferguson. A Department of Justice’s study already told us much of what we needed to know about the police abuses as well as other racial inequities in Ferguson. On a broader level, we have had studies on these and other issues negatively affecting Black America from as far back as the 60’s with the Kerner report which was issued by the Federal government. Not to mention that the Urban League issues its annual State of Black America report which has for decades highlighted the gaps in economic progress and many other areas between blacks and whites in this country.
That we need another commission to substantiate obvious manifestations of systemic racism and oppression is, ironically, in itself evidence of racism. While every claim cannot be taken simply at face value, it is disingenuous to suggest that no one in or around St. Louis was aware that in this deeply segregated city, these problems didn’t exist and were not the result of racial inequity. Still, it had to be proven before it would be seen as legitimate.
The question becomes: what now? What usually happens as a part of this cycle is that somewhere between policy being set forward by these commissions and those policies being signed into law, politics takes over and all sorts of biases barriers are used to explain away why certain legislation is never enacted. It is up to the citizens of St. Louis and its surrounding counties to pay close attention now. Their elected officials have indisputable information that their city has major problems. They will choose to do what voters let them.
Beyond St. Louis, we fool ourselves if we believe that these issues are confined to the state of Missouri. We know that systemic racism is not a local or regional issue, but something that is dealt with all across the country. There are Fergusons everywhere. The question is whether we are going to need another study before all of us start believing that and decide to do something about it.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former criminal prosecutor. He is also an adjunct professor of criminal justice studies at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on [email protected]