By Tom Watts
In the aftermath of Ferguson, I keep reading pieces like this: what we should do now is learn, understand, and think. I find this advice irritating, because it seems futile. Things look bad right now, and social change will never come from progressives simply becoming more informed. We have to take the next step: talk with people. In particular, talk with people who disagree with you. Do it over Thanksgiving, and keep doing it throughout the whole holiday season. If you can broaden even one person’s perspective, you’ve made a small step toward changing public opinion, and when public opinion changes, society changes.
Talk about race. Events in Ferguson are a starting point. Talk about what happened on Monday night. People will point out, correctly, that Darren Wilson may have been innocent of murder; witnesses tell stories that differ as to the crucial details. But that’s not what a grand jury proceeding is about. A grand jury is supposed to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a criminal charge, and, if so, a regular trial follows. Part of the frustration in the legal community is that what the prosecutor did was unusual: he presented all the evidence, both for and against the prosecution’s case, which is neither required nor typical. Ordinarily, before a grand jury, the prosecutor just presents the evidence of guilt, and there is no right for anyone to present the other side. As a result, many legal scholars think that grand juries are unproductive (this is one of the only parts of the Bill of Rights that has not been incorporated against the states), and the usual quip is that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich (which generally is true, but less so in police shootings, especially high-profile ones). And whatever you think of the grand jury, the case is an international embarrassment.
Don’t just talk about Mike Brown. There is so much more: there are huge divides by race in perceptions of the criminal justice system, and those perceptions are based on reality (there are many more Mike Browns). That’s part of why the shooting has reverberated throughout America. The police reaction to peaceful protests also was disproportionate and disturbing and perhaps racially tinged. Keep talking about race: legally mandated segregation ended a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean that segregation is over, much less that racism is over. Explicit bias has gone underground, but implicit bias exists and is pervasive. We need to talk about race not because of the Jim Crow era or because of slavery; that was a long time ago. We need to talk about race because of what’s going on right now.
And talk about immigration. Last Thursday, President Obama announced a sweeping immigration policy that has thoroughly outraged and energized the right, even after an election in which Republicans won their largest majorities in nearly everything in close to a century. Despite the political controversy, there is not much legal controversy here. President Obama has the legal authority to do what he did, and it’s actually not very surprising: there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States but the resources to deport about only 400,000 per year. Presumably he should make sure those 400,000 are among the most deportation-worthy ones, and this exercise of prosecutorial discretion is unreviewable.
But, again, there’s so much more to say. His action is legal, but it’s also good. Facts can help: the number of undocumented immigrants in America has been decreasing steadily for years. About half of the people who are here without proper documentation never illegally crossed a border; they overstayed a visa. Each one has been here on average thirteen years. There is a moral case and an economic case that our current laws are bad, and comprehensive immigration reform legislation could make it better. In the meantime, Congress sits on its hands (or frivolously sues the president for something unrelated). Shouldn’t Congress act?
And talk about sexual orientation. There’s plenty of good news here: marriage equality is sweeping the country, most recently arriving in Mississippi on Tuesday. The arguments against same-sex marriage are being rejected as irrational, which they are: the argument that marriage is necessary to encourage opposite-sex couples to remain in long-term relationships so as to raise children is, I suppose, an argument for allowing opposite-sex couples to marry, but it provides no basis whatever for denying the same right to same-sex couples, and the argument that some states should be allowed to “wait and see” cannot possibly be sufficient if constitutional rights are being violated.
But, once more, there is so much more to say. In most states, a worker can be fired for being gay. Discrimination against LGBT people remains, and we need to talk, and talk, and talk, changing minds one by one.
In truth, you can talk about just about anything, because, thanks to the politicization of absolutely everything, social justice can come up in any context at all. But most importantly, talk — and listen, and respond. Every year, people (including literal crisis negotiators) write about how to do this. Follow their advice, or don’t, but keep the conversation going, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll make progress.