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Understanding Ferguson

A man protest with military police
Police move in to detain a protester in Ferguson, Missouri on August 11, 2014. © Whitney Curtis/ The New York Times/ Redux

The fire in Ferguson, Missouri continues to burn. More than a week after an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot in the street by a white police officer, the situation in the suburban St. Louis community remains tense.

Attempts to mourn the passing of Michael Brown and protest his death have been complicated by looters and the presence of a militarized police force, outfitted with tear gas and rubber bullets. Local law enforcement has been supplanted by state troopers; early Monday morning, Gov. Jay Nixon called in the Missouri National Guard, even as the Justice Department and the FBI moved in to further investigate the shooting. By day’s end, President Obama had weighed in, and dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to the scene.

If Ferguson has become the epicenter of debate over police use of deadly force and its impact on race relations in America, it is hardly an isolated case. In Los Angeles, police shot and killed an unarmed man named Ezell Ford. In the Dayton, Ohio suburb of Beavercreek, John Crawford III was fatally shot by police at a Wal-Mart. And in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner was killed during a confrontation with police who, according to the coroner’s office, used an illegal procedure—a chokehold—to subdue him.

There has been a great deal of heat, but not enough light, as the country absorbs the lessons of these tragedies. Understanding the root causes of these crises is the first step toward preventing them. Toward that end, I offer the following resources to help inform constructive and ongoing public discourse about this nation’s long and arduous journey toward racial justice.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a poetically beautiful account of the Great Migration, in which thousands of black citizens trekked from their homes in the South to cities in the North—some fleeing for their lives—in the years between about 1910 and 1970. Wilkerson conducted years of research about the factors that contributed to the exodus of black people from the South—persecution and terrorism at the hands of angry whites, lack of economic opportunity, and exclusion from quality education experiences. Wilkerson then shares those findings in the stories of the people who fled—some of which bear marked similarity to the stories of young black men like Michael Brown today.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This is a searing examination and critique of the American criminal justice system, powerfully written by a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and law school professor. Her bewilderment and anger are palpable as she methodically documents with irrefutable data the way the criminal justice system continues to marginalize and criminalize black people. She forces us to take stock of the nation’s progress—and lack thereof—in its treatment of African-Americans from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the present day, when people of color are incarcerated in numbers disproportionate to their white counterparts. She thoroughly examines the impact those prison terms have on the people locked up, their families and their communities as a whole, exposing the economic incentives to allowing racism to fester and boil over.

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger. In this comprehensive tome, Kluger, a master storyteller, weaves together the squares of the quilt that is Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation in schools. He shares in great detail the lives of those impacted by the “separate but equal” policy in place before the ruling—and paints vivid portraits of the key players in tearing that doctrine down, from famous figures like Thurgood Marshall to lesser-known change agents such as the Rev. Joseph DeLaine. Kluger lays bare the system of white supremacy that touched every facet of life for all of those involved in Brown and invites the reader to draw the painful and obvious parallels to society today.

America in the King Years by Taylor Branch. Beginning in 1954, where Simple Justice leaves off, Taylor Branch provides a deep and introspective look at the building blocks of a movement, including the man who was eventually at the center of it all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Using Dr. King as his vehicle, Branch explores the nooks and crannies of American society that contributed to the need for a civil rights movement and that came together to build that movement. This powerful trilogy—Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge—details a system of oppression that kept black people in a position of economic servitude and marginalized them socially. Partnerships formed across faith, geographical location, professions, and race to combat such oppression. The stories of the people who formed the civil rights movement, and the way they navigated currents that threatened to pull them under, help form a roadmap for moving forward today.

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle McGuire. For centuries, black women in this country have been subjected to sexual violence at the hands of white men. McGuire tells the story of how that sexual violence gave rise to the civil rights movement—and how Rosa Parks, a champion of black women and an investigator for the NAACP, used the stories she knew, of women who were victimized as they went about trying to do their jobs, to galvanize a movement.

The Children by David Halberstam. Halberstam chronicles the experiences of Rev. James Lawson to bring the non-violent, civil unrest teachings of Gandhi to the United States—and specifically to young black people, who became the driving force of the civil rights movement. When children were beaten, hosed, and attacked by dogs, the nation paid attention. When children peaceably sat a lunch counter and were threatened and assaulted, the nation was horrified. When children spoke, the nation listened. As Halberstam carefully documents, many of those children became the legendary leaders we revere today.

Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer. Michelle Alexander opens the foreword of this book with a warning to readers: “Do not underestimate the power of the book you are holding in your hands.” She speaks truth. Marc Mauer’s classic work has been reimagined as a graphic novel, with artist Sabrina Jones’ powerful illustrations helping to make important arguments about the criminal justice system’s excesses more accessible to young audiences. While the format has changed, the message remains constant: this is a revealing narrative about the history of mass incarceration in the United States—and the political, economic, and social ramifications of society’s decision to over-incarcerate on communities of color.

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