After a grand jury decided Nov. 24 not to indict a white policeman for killing a black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama asked a divided America to respect the “rule of law.” The legal system must work its course, he urged, even if people disagree on evidence in the case. What accounts then for the continuing protests and sharp debates – and not only among African-Americans?
One answer may lie in a general rage against “the system” in the United States. More than half of people agreed with this statement in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in November: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” That feeling runs across all races and political affiliations.
This sense of being victim to a rigged process has been building since 2002, according to the poll. It has now reached a peak last seen only 22 years ago. When alienation is that high, politicians on the left and right often exploit it, as do some media. Racially charged incidents like the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson only help expose the alienation.
One observation of the rioters in Ferguson is that they believe law enforcement has it in for them (even if blacks in the city are in the majority). Poor minorities are too busy trying to survive to change the system. Nationwide, only 58 percent of blacks have confidence that police officers in their community do a good job enforcing the law, compared with 80 percent among whites.
In his most important speech on race, Mr. Obama said in 2008 that Americans with particular grievances must learn to take responsibility for their lives and not succumb to despair. “They must always believe that they can write their own destiny,” he said, and work with a belief that society can change: “What we know – what we have seen – is that America can change.”
So when people debate whether Mr. Wilson or Mr. Brown was at fault, and whether the law failed or worked, the better path is to suggest ways to prevent such incidents. Should more police carry stun guns? How can blacks better help reform police? What will improve the “system” of justice? Fixing cities like Ferguson starts not with estrangement but by embracing the stranger.