What is Ferguson teaching us?

In the spring of 1968, I was attending Southwest High School. It was a difficult moment in American history. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. The country was seething with racial tension. OnApril 9, the day of King’s funeral, Kansas City officials had decided not to close schools. That decision led to riots in the city, leaving 5 dead and over 100 arrested.

On that April 9, I was sitting in typing class. The school’s loudspeakers were broadcasting news of the funeral…and of the riots taking place just miles away from where we sat.

What I remember most from that day was a comment that an African-American student made to me. She was sitting next to me in typing. She said that she had wanted to stay home and watch King’s funeral, but her parents insisted that she go to school as she normally did…because that is what the Rev. King wanted…for all African-Americans to be treated normal. As we listened to information about the riots, she quietly asked: “When will we be treated as normal?” 

Fast forward 46 years. In Ferguson, MO, riots and protests have broken the image of “normalcy” in how African-Americans are treated in this country. Sadly, my classmates question remains unanswered four and half decades later.

I do not offer these thoughts to second guess the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Wilson, over the the death of Michael Brown. Nor are these thoughts meant to support  or attack the decision. Rather, it is to speak to the larger issue facing this country…that of racial equality.

Take Ferguson, as one example. It is 60% African-American. Yet, in 2013, 92% of searches and 86% of car stops involved African-Americans. 483 blacks were arrested. 36 arrested were white. It is possible that the black community in Ferguson is more riddled with crime and violence than the white community. But 9 to 1?

Again, the question is not whether the Ferguson Police are prejudiced or not. The question is: When will those in the African American community be treated as anyone else?

Not surprisingly, Judaism has much to say about these matters. Over and over again, the Torah teaches us that there shall be one law for the land – both citizen and stranger; both those considered “inside” and those considered “outside” – and that justice is to be served the same, whether for those in high stations or those who are the “have nots.” All are treated equally. That sounds a lot like being treated as “normal.”

For me, the question is: When does this country adhere to the principles that those who landed at Plymouth Rock carried with them to this new land…that there be freedom from prejudice, freedom from fear. I imagine that the first pilgrims thought they were coming to a place in which they could be “normal.”

Isn’t that what we all want?

Isn’t that what our neighbors and fellow citizens deserve?

I wonder if my classmate feels “normal” today? I wonder.