‘Ferguson Did Not Happen in a Vacuum’

Historians discuss a flash point for protest and their role in explaining it

January 06, 2015

On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., a white police officer shot an unarmed young black man dead. To understand what happened that day, you need more than details about what went down between the officer, Darren Wilson, and the victim, Michael Brown. You need history.

That was the message powerfully brought home by scholars on a panel held here on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The panel, "Understanding Ferguson: Race, Power, Protest, and the Past," brought together historians who have studied and taught and written publicly about race and racism in the United States.

Panel members came at the subject from a multitude of angles: demographics, the history of policing and mass incarceration, cultural scripts that criminalize African-Americans, myths of racial progress, and how to bring current events into the classroom. Events like Mr. Brown’s killing in Ferguson, the death three weeks earlier of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., after a police officer put him in a chokehold, and the subsequent protests that have taken place across the country make it clear that people inside and outside academe wrestle with history every day, whether they know it or not.

"We have an obligation to remind the nation that Ferguson did not happen in a vacuum, that the Eric Garner grand jury did not happen in a vacuum," said Heather Ann Thompson. (Grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict the officers involved in Mr. Brown’s and Mr. Garner’s deaths.) Ms. Thompson, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Temple University who will be moving to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor this year, has written a forthcoming book on the 1971 prison uprising at Attica.

Colin H. Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Iowa, used demographics to tell "a story of sustained segregation" in St. Louis and its suburbs, including Ferguson. He mapped the distribution of whites and blacks in the city and surrounding localities, and talked about how a politically fragmented landscape supports segregation. Those factors, combined with a stark income gap and practices like "revenue policing," set the stage for what happened in Ferguson.

Insights Ignored

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, moderated the panel.

Mr. Muhammad talked about how nearly a century’s worth of critiques of police tactics in America has been ignored or forgotten. He mentioned, for instance, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s report on the Harlem race riot of 1935, in which Frazier cited police aggression as a contributing factor.

"The stakes of what’s happened in Ferguson are evidence of these insights' not sticking," Mr. Muhammad said. Meanwhile, politicians like the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani continue to cite black-on-black violence, not police tactics, as the real problem. "Giuliani’s reading from a centuries-old racial script," Mr. Muhammad said.

Faced with "woefully ahistorical" commentary in the news media and elsewhere, Ms. Thompson said, historians have an opportunity to use the past to explain the present—how the history of excessive policing and the systematic criminalizing of blacks fed the rise of mass incarceration, for instance. "We are finally being asked to weigh in on these public events," she said, "and to explain why they matter."

The panelists came down hard on what Ms. Thompson called "the myth of post-racialism" in America. Ferguson and its aftermath make it very clear that race still dominates American life, and that racism is a pervasive problem that needs to be fought not just in cities but in suburbs, "in front of the Target, in front of the Payless," she said.

Two other panelists, William Jelani Cobb and Marcia Chatelain, said that events like Ferguson have a direct connection to the classroom, and that the boundary between academic and civic life is necessarily porous. Mr. Cobb, an associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, filed dispatches from Ferguson for The New Yorker. Being on the ground there, he said, "it became clear to me that my syllabus had jumped off the page."

He analyzed some of President Obama’s recent public statements, such as his remarks after the grand juries’ decisions not to indict the officers in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases. The president invoked the rule of law as what brings us together. But in Ferguson Mr. Cobb detected "a deep feeling" among African-Americans that the rest of the country doesn’t fully appreciate their humanity.

Context in the Classroom

Ms. Chatelain, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, talked about the conversations that Ferguson drew her into, online and in person. What could or should professors and teachers tell their students? How can they work race into their classroom conversations? She kept hearing variations on "I don’t know what to say." That led her to create the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter.

"What started as a suggestion about things to read" became an opportunity to get scholars talking to each other and to their students, Ms. Chatelain said. The idea isn’t to create contention in the classroom but to understand that when you provide context for an event like Ferguson, you open the door to many other conversations about race as well.

Students want to have those conversations, according to the panelists. Ms. Thompson said that her students "wanted to get on a bus and go to Ferguson." One response to that activist spirit, she said, is to ask them to think about what they see on their own campuses and what changes they can make close to home.

There’s no quick fix at the ballot box for the persistent legacy of racism, she said. "It would be very, very difficult to vote ourselves out of this problem."

Jennifer Howard writes about research in the humanities, publishing, and other topics. Follow her on Twitter @JenHoward, or email her at jennifer.howard@chronicle.com.

Correction (1/7/2015, 10:31 a.m.): In the original version of this article the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier's surname was misspelled as "Fraser." The article has been corrected.