Acting Upon Fear: A Call to Action from Ferguson and Beyond

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Like many of you, I’m deeply troubled by the death of Michael Brown and the circumstances surrounding it. On Sunday morning, I was moved to pen a reflection for the readers of UrbanCusp. “Afraid of the Dark: A Black Professor’s Reflections on Michael Brown’s Killing” expresses some pretty raw feelings that are difficult for me to look at after the fact, but I think there’s something to be said for sharing in the moment.

In the days since writing my reflection, a lot has been said about the wider context for the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. Howard Rambsy II, Assistant Professor of Literature at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, has done a remarkable job rounding up the coverage from major news outlets. And per usual, commentators (lay and professional) have interpreted emerging details to justify a host of positions, including arguments about probable cause and self defense.

I’ve tried to steer clear of such adjudication simply because there’s so much about what went down that I simply do not know. But there are some things that are common knowledge. Marc Lamont Hill, Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College, lays them out quite clearly:

As an anthropologist and community activist, he is not making these assertions lightly. Two sources include a 2012 statistical study reported on by Adam Hudson that finds “a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 days” and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

You may be compelled by some of these arguments. You may have reservations. But I hope you don’t allow the latter impulse to obscure what we are really talking about here.

The discourse being had in courtrooms, on street corners, and in the blogosphere is not about this single sorrowful incident–though we should pause to examine how full of sorrow it is. This isn’t even about one long-standing racial conflict–though we must be clear on the dramatic history of which our responses are but a part. This is about fear and how humans choose to deal with it. And it’s a problem when individuals and institutions and corporations can designate some persons as collateral damage. It’s a scary thing when the expense of human life can be factored in, or even worse, considered negligible.

Whatever we choose to care about today, I hope we can take inventory to find those who are slipping through the cracks in the systems that benefit us. We are all culpable of being afraid. But we need not be guilty for acting on that fear to the detriment of those around us.

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Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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