I spent 12 years of my life in St. Louis. I went to college there. Got married. Landed my first teaching job. Bought my first house. Between door-knocking for candidates and causes, driving around on ice cold nights in a homeless shelter van, and breaking bread in people’s homes and churches and synagogues, I came to know the metropolis well. I came to love and admire its many communities — including Ferguson: so tenacious, so full of hardworking families trying to stay afloat, trying to dismantle racial apartheid and make a better life for their children.
But each time I tried to write about Ferguson, I could only stare into the blank screen, dumbfounded. It wasn’t the killing of Michael Brown that left me speechless: tragically, the murder of black men by police is common. It wasn’t the riots that stumped me: Ferguson residents are rightfully fed up with being treated as second-class citizens. It wasn’t even the ludicrous spectacle of a hyper-militarized police response. I’ve been following that story for years.
No, what dumbfounded me was the outpouring of white anger and resentment. As police, pundits, politicians and their supporters sought control over the narrative of events in Ferguson, they drew from the deep well of moral panic and race hatred that in many ways define our contemporary political landscape. I am not talking about the moronic counter-protests by the Klan, or the impending race war hallucinated by capital-R Racists. I am talking about the insidious language of white privilege — the civil, polite, unconscious adoption by white people of racially normative viewpoints that give us comfort and help explain the world on our terms.