Ferguson, Missouri. Sanford, Florida. Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Oakland. Chicago. Staten Island. The grim roster of cities where police or vigilante violence has resulted in the death of an African-American just keeps growing. The streets of Ferguson have quieted now, after roiling for eleven days with the anguish of protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot by a police officer on August 9 after being stopped for walking in the street. The police, fortified by a Pentagon program that provides surplus military equipment to civilian law enforcement—with no training requirements and little oversight—responded with riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. (President Obama has ordered a review of the program, but any attempt to curb it will be met with resistance.)
Yet it’s not only the deaths that have sparked fury. It’s also the realization on the part of those horrified and traumatized by the killings that many Americans are willing to accept and excuse the state and individual violence visited upon black Americans. We see this acceptance in the grave injustices following these deaths: the police in Ferguson left Brown’s body in the street for hours, without even covering it, and refused to provide details about the shooting, instead releasing misleading information about what precipitated his fatal encounter with the officer. The police in Sanford, Florida, didn’t arrest George Zimmerman until forty-five days after he had killed Trayvon Martin, and a jury later acquitted him of murder and manslaughter. This divide is reflected in the fact that, according to a Pew poll, 80 percent of African-Americans felt that the shooting of Michael Brown raised important issues about race, while only 37 percent of whites did. On one side of the chasm, people are in agony; the other side is acting like there’s nothing wrong at all.
Those who are in agony, however, increasingly know that they are not alone. And the anger sparked by these incidents of inhumanity is no longer isolated. As Mychal Denzel Smith explores in this special issue, young black organizers are laying the groundwork for a new grassroots movement for racial equality, focused on the critical issues facing African-Americans today: not just police brutality but mass incarceration, unemployment, voting rights, educational disparities and more. As the fiftieth anniversary of many of the civil-rights movement’s proudest accomplishments passes, these activists are registering voters, delivering petitions, drafting legislation—and creating community. While many of these groups were born out of the pain of Trayvon Martin’s killing, they aren’t solely focused on that death. Instead, they are developing a democratic, inclusive leadership model that brings a diverse set of concerns to their work.
As this new grassroots network comes into its own, one very prominent voice has joined theirs to call attention to the plight of African-Americans and Latinos. Last February, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper, a $300 million initiative to close the “opportunity gaps” facing boys and young men of color. The problem, writes Dani McClain in this issue, is not only that the effort neglects the needs of girls and young women of color, but also that the initiative focuses on changing the behavior of the very people who are victims of discrimination, harassment and violence, rather than confronting its sources. Pressing us all to face and remedy the true causes of the chasm separating white America from black and brown America will be the vital work of this new vanguard of activists.
Read more from our special issue on racial justice
Mychal Denzel Smith: “How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism”
Paula J. Giddings: “It’s Time for a 21st-Century Anti-Lynching Movement”
Rinku Sen: “As People of Color, We’re Not All in the Same Boat”
Dani McClain: “Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative—for Boys Only”
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Obama Is Responsible for the Protests in Ferguson—but Not in the Way You Think ”