Tragedy in Ferguson

What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri has reminded Americans that the civil rights struggle is as alive in the U.S. as institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.

The death of Mike Brown, an African-American teenager, in the hands of a white police officer raised tensions and sparked demonstrations in a community that feels impotent about its surroundings—and this incident became a catalyst for that frustration.

A look at the demographics of this small city of slightly more than 20,000 explains the circumstances surrounding the situation.

Until 2000, the city kept a balance between its black and white populations. Today, 64% of the population is African American and 29% is Anglo. However, this major demographic shift has not been reflected in its institutions. Of the municipal government’s seven officials, only one is African American; likewise, only one of the seven School Board members is African American, and out of 50 police officers, only three are African Americans.

The police’s repressive actions using tear gas, attacks on the press and threatening dogs are reminders of the repression experienced during marches in the South in the 1950s. On top of that, the police used military equipment that is excessive and unnecessary for policing a city like Ferguson.

The police incident detonated an unsustainable social and political situation. An exhaustive investigation of Brown’s death is needed, but that is just the beginning. It is also necessary to closely examine the election system and figure out how to increase the participation of African Americans in civic life.

On the other hand, it would be naïve to think that there are no other cities around the country with a power structure as unrepresentative as Ferguson’s. Unfortunately, the remains of a long history of racism still persist.

The big challenge is achieving much-needed changes in local institutions that reflect demographics, without having to go through the tragic experience that the residents of Ferguson are living now.