Everywhere I went some time ago, I heard “Ferguson.” Perhaps Ferguson will take its place alongside Selma or Birmingham. Michael Brown, whose funeral is now well past, will take his place alongside, well, too many others. Long before Emmett Till and already after Michael Brown, there are names that represent deaths coming from the failures of American society to address issues of white privilege, of policing, and of economics. Indeed, as Ferguson may come to stand for change as we had hoped Selma and Birmingham would, I know I am not alone in worrying that what we see in the media — whether mainstream or twitter-fed — is a sign of failure. I know, too, that I am not alone in hoping that this is, again, a moment of anger turning into more — into history-altering action and thus, into hope.
And, like others, I hope that the hope is not misplaced. Hope against hope. Hope woven together with hope.
Today’s hope is rooted in shame as well. Shame that this is the United States. That this is 60 years after Brown v the Board of Education and we see before us racism that is deeply rooted and deeply consequential. As has always been the case race is not not, in these moments, separate from gender; the embedding of whiteness in the gendering of Americans (and perhaps even the planet) has been long attested. (See, e.g., Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Sexuality and the Black Church).
As was the case decades ago, in the echo of Selma and of Emmett Till, all of this is also about education — the ways education remains segregated, the ways that we have fought to retain white privilege through educational means as well as to defeat it through educational means, the incrementalism of education rather than the radical transformation of our lives and our society. It is still the case that I was never required to learn black history while everyone is required to learn at least a version of that unmarked history we know to be the history of the winners.
And higher education? What does this have to do with that place where I have found my vocation, where this blog finds its meaning? What does Ferguson say about higher education? Among other things, it says we have much more work to do. Many of the people involved in Ferguson — or as commentators on Ferguson — have or had college degrees; in fact, some of the racists (and there were many) and some of those acting against racism — were college educated. And, in both cases, many were not. Michael Brown was due to leave for college this fall. He was just 18. And, many of those who would have been his peers — at campuses around the United States — stepped away from formal education in the weeks following his death (and more recently) to make visible the ways they wish to resist the status quo in favor of a world where Michael Brown would have lived, where rioting and looting would not have occurred, where police would not be militarized, and much much more. As they have stood, with their arms aloft, they have created a sign for our time – calling not just for a world in which police don;t shoot, but a world in which the plaintive cry “don’t shoot” is itself unnecessary.
If we evaluate our higher education by the absence of violence, we have certainly failed. What can — and what must — we do differently for Ferguson? For Michael Brown and his many many peers
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