Friday, December 5, 2014

Remaining Silent On Racism Is Not The Answer

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, December 5, 2014
By Bill Gouveia


            The town of Ferguson, MO isn’t just located in America – it is America.  It is a typical example of what is going on in this country with regard to race, life, policing, the legal system, the frustration of citizens, and the delicate and subjective concepts of fairness and decency.


            I can’t do justice to the many complex and complicated issues going on there.  I can’t properly analyze the many forces at work, both good and bad. 


I’m neither qualified nor equipped to properly and completely assess the impact of events which have crippled a town, made us question our values and systems, and created a public dialogue that is either helping the situation or destroying the country, depending on your personal perspective.


            So all I am left with is my own point of view – that of a relatively privileged white person in a liberal state who has never had to personally endure much when it comes to discrimination.  I have never had to fear for my life as I walk down the street at night because I might look out of place.  I have never had to be a law enforcement officer and risk my life every time I answer even a relatively simple call.


            I have not been a part of a community where the police are viewed as the enemy, where their very presence is a threat whether or not there is any wrongdoing.  I have not had the experience of working within the public safety sphere or the court system, where there is constant exposure to people who commit crimes and pose a real threat.


            But there are some things I know.  I can’t explain to the satisfaction of all just how I know them, or why I am convinced of their validity.  But I am – and for the purpose of this discussion, that is what is important.


            I know racism is something deeply ingrained into our way of life.  I know it permeates many of our institutions in ways both obvious and subtle.  I know it unfairly affects those who are both victims of it and collateral damage of attempts to end or correct it.


            I know the bombing and burning in Ferguson is wrong.  I also know it is a symptom, not a disease.  It can’t be tolerated, it must be stopped.  But to concentrate on that, to make these destructive acts the focus of what is happening there, is a mistake of serious proportions.


            I know there is a large African-American population in Ferguson.  I know a large percentage of criminal activity there is committed by people of color, in large part as a result of that percentage.  But I also know that should not and cannot be reason for police officers to profile black people in general as more likely to be criminals.


            I know the grand jury process is the way the law works in Ferguson and other places.  I know that system is often nothing more than a tool for the local prosecutor, who controls what the grand jury gets.  I understand that if the prosecutor wants an indictment, he/she will get an indictment.  And if he/she doesn’t – they won’t.


            I know white police officers in Ferguson and elsewhere are not racists simply by virtue of their profession.  I know their job sometimes casts them in an unfair light.  But I also know they are trained in a system that often seems to excuse racism in the name of safety.  I know neither safety nor freedom should be determined by your race.


            I know there are criminals looting and burning in Ferguson, and they should be jailed.  But I know they are not indicative of the majority of those standing up against injustice and inequality, going far beyond what occurred between a Ferguson teen and a police officer.


            What I don’t know is how to attack the real problem of racism in all its forms, not just the most obvious and visible ones.  I don’t know how to fix it, to make it fair, to make it right.


            So for now I will try to be a part of the discussion, to keep a dialogue going.  I don’t know if that will work.


            But I know remaining silent won’t.


Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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