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Travis Fife: Department of Justice’s Ferguson report reveals racial problems

By Travis Fife

March 6, 2015 12:31 a.m.

The most infuriating thing about listening to people talk about the shooting of Michael Brown over the last few months has been the tendency to view the event in a vacuum.

There were times where the question of racism was a simple one – were the officer’s actions racially motivated, or was he just doing his job? With the release of two different Department of Justice reports yesterday, we may have begun to get answers.

One of the reports solidified Darren Wilson’s original testimony and said he would not be charged with a crime. It justified, at least to some extent, that he was acting in self-defense. But the other report, regarding the state of policing in Ferguson, sheds light on the necessity of looking to structural reforms for policing in the United States.

Because what’s more telling than the judgment on Wilson’s actions is the rampant racism prevalent in Ferguson revealed by the second DOJ report.

For example, the report found that 85 percent of traffic stops from 2012-2014 involved African Americans. Additionally, during the same time period, African Americans constituted 93 percent of arrests.

One way of thinking about racism is to view it as an issue of direct actions against another person based on race. While that form of racism still exists, the much more insidious form of oppression is the type that operates invisibly. This type of discrimination allows a predominately white police force to rule over a predominately African American city for years until something tragic happens and people take notice.

For some of us, this is obvious. Yet one can still find blogs, news stories and passionate Facebook posts taking the report as a defense of Darren Wilson. There are also people out there who will take the statistics outlined in the report and claim they are overstated.

The problem is that when we frame the question of racism around who was wrong in a particular situation, we give people an easy way out. Wilson’s potential innocence makes no difference in the larger discussion about racism in America. Perhaps he was acting in self-defense, but it’s shortsighted to think this proves anything.

We are given a choice on what we choose to take away from the Justice Department’s report. We can choose which report to put the focus on – the one that may prove Wilson’s innocence or the report that focuses on larger problems within Ferguson policing.

Director of the FBI, James B. Comey also recognized these problems – noting that the conversation surrounding race after Ferguson has not been a healthy one. Now, the Ferguson police department is on the path to covering up their past mistakes. They’ve already fired one officer and suspended two others. The police chief has publicly recognized the reports of discriminatory policing.

But firing police officers is a public relations necessity, not a meaningful change. The senators pushing to disband and restructure the Ferguson Police Department are on the right track.

We should not focus on the one instance of Wilson, but the way oppression manifests itself across America in ways that sometimes go unnoticed. The report sheds light on what many protesting in Ferguson already felt – problems of racism run deep in Ferguson and across the country.

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