I work for a civil rights organization; an old, established one with a formidable reputation. I do research for them; I get paid to make sense of the inequalities that exist in our country. I am a middle class, well-educated white male and constantly struggle with the fact that I’m in a very privileged position to be able to do what I do for a living. The killing of Michael Brown has affected me tremendously, in ways that I have yet to even fully comprehend. Maybe it has to do with the idea that I like to think that what I do makes a difference and that fighting the good fight matters; I guess it does on some level. The fact remains that there are stark inequalities between races in this country. These disparities aren’t some sort of modern day Darwinism played out within the confines of our society – they have been purposefully designed and implemented to move the advantaged further ahead at the expense of the disadvantaged. We don’t, by any stretch of the imagination live in a “post-racial” world; race has almost everything to do with, well pretty much everything.
Understanding and more importantly accepting the fact that public policy over the past (at least) 100 years has purposefully oppressed people based on skin color is the first step to understanding why the killing of Michael Brown is a problem we all share. Inequality abounds in the natural world; faster or more alert or more naturally cautious little fish grow up to be bigger fish; sluggish, less alert or less cautious fish become dinner. Fish however, at least as far as I know, aren’t prone to public policy that dictates whether they become dinner or get to grow up. Humans are a different case; we impose rules, regulations and public policy rooted in the retention of power rather than the expansion of equity and morality.
I’m not an expert on constitutional law, sociology, law enforcement, or race relations. I am an expert in civil rights research and data analysis. I have conducted exhaustive research on the impacts of public policies on our urban areas, from the discriminatory practices of the Home Owners Loan Corporation which dictated where private home loans would be insured by the Federal government, to the impacts Brown V. Board of Education had on the fabric of our society. In Richmond as in many other cities across the Country, bus lines don’t extend into job-rich suburban counties, educational infrastructure is crumbling, public housing policies ensure that poverty is deeply concentrated, disparities across the board are rising. The mortgage lending debacle that lend to the collapse of the economy was centered in the communities most unable to weather the storm. In Richmond, those neighborhoods with the highest rates of African American homeownership also experienced the highest rates of foreclosure.
Much of the work I do leaves me enraged. It should enrage you too. I believe that every life matters. I believe that all people want a better life. I believe that the inequalities in our society are no longer sustainable. Part of me would like to see the outrage in Ferguson increase and spread to every city across the country. However, the sensible side understands that the system we have all had a hand in creating can be changed. It took hundreds of years of purposeful intent to get to where we are; it will take as many years to make things right.
Most of you are not engaged in the type of work that I am. Most of you do not spend time thinking about the tangible as well as intangible privileges you have or haven’t received due to your skin color. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. I believe we all have the ability to change our system and this is my challenge to you: take a deep, hard look at your personal biases, try to understand from where they came and change them. Until we, as a collective society, are able to see people as they truly are we will continue to prevent valuable lives from reaching their full potential and that, my friends, is an unfathomable travesty.
Brian Koziol is Director of Research at Housing Opportunities Made Equal.