Stepping Away from the Veil of Ignorance: A Critical Look at the Youth’s Reaction to Ferguson

The
reaction of the youth to the death of Michael Brown has been one of the most
fascinating aspects of the Ferguson discussion. When the grand jury’s decision
was announced last week, my Facebook news feed was inundated with emotional responses.

I
viewed this unending stream of posts coming from people of all walks of life,
suffixed with the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter” as a collective catharsis. People
I had never expected to have an opinion were writing posts—a fresh 30-year-old expat I had met in Thailand this summer, an old middle school
acquaintance who I haven’t seen in years, the quiet, reserved kid I knew from my
third-year English class at boarding school. 

The posts ranged from calm,
thoughtful and lengthy, to short, intense spurts of anger. Beneath these
words I saw vulnerability, shock and disgust. There were also many who were
unsure or confused about what to make of the jury’s decision. Unlike Jim Crow or the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s (and the way these
moments in history are taught in schools), the Ferguson case was not seen by all as a clear-cut issue of right and wrong. Many struggled to find the ‘true
side of the story.’

Despite
the murky details surrounding Brown’s death, I still saw the situation as a
complex and nuanced case about prejudice, profiling, the role that police play
in our communities and the state of race relations in the 21st
century. Was Michael Brown guilty of stealing cigarillos? Yes. Did Darren
Wilson take his power too far? Perhaps. Are there inconsistencies in the investigation
and subsequent grand jury proceedings? Absolutely.

Brown
died three days after I had returned from Thailand, where I spent the summer
relatively insulated from Western news. I initially thought about the situation
through the lens of what I know of U.S. history. During the Civil War, Missouri
was the site of brutally vicious guerilla-style combat that lasted well into 1889—24 years after the Civil War had officially ended. It did not surprise me
that Brown’s death could potentially have been a result of remnants of old, true-blue racism that remains deeply entrenched in the psyche of some
communities.

I
had to experience this phenomenon first-hand, in October, when at a party a drunk white male ‘friend’ said in reference to me that he didn’t “f*** with that ethnic pussy.” The idea that, in 2014, stubborn views can be espoused somewhat
unconsciously and perpetuated by a strong and sickening fear of difference will
never shock me again. 

A month after the incident I attended a talk at Scripps
College given by Jeffery Prager, a sociology professor at UCLA. During
the talk, Prager discussed his research on “intergenerational transmission of
trauma”: the idea that traumatic experiences, if left unacknowledged an be
passed down through generations on a subconscious and often implicit level.
Prager noted that the institution of slavery in the United States, racism and
200-plus years of traumatic incidents, both subtle and explicit, have resulted
in an unparalleled situation.  The “traumas of yesterday” are still very
relevant and impact our society in a very real way.

I
was forced to recognize that being identified in such vulgar and bigoted terms was
both objectifying and extremely demeaning not only to my gender but also to my race—in
other words, this was a traumatic experience. I had to take the time to process
the way I was truly being perceived by a peer I had formerly trusted and
respected. I also had to reexamine my own identity within my school community.

So
when the grand jury’s verdict was announced and my peers organized a walk-out
and marched down to Claremont City Hall, I felt numb, if not overwhelmingly
cynical—traumatized, if you will. We are long overdue for a national
conversation about race. But race is not a one-dimensional issue. The
conversation needs to include class, the way we have been socialized and
perhaps most importantly, the way our children will be socialized. Race is a
complex issue, not just a matter of genetic differences but of multi-faceted
modern-day ideologies, where it lurks deep below the surface.

It
is a scary and daunting task to begin this conversation, but seeing the vast
majority of my peers taking the initiative to self-educate and form an opinion
on the issue gives me hope that our generation will be the one to start a
productive and long-overdue national dialogue from a place of thoughtful
sincerity.

It
is only fitting that Facebook was the platform through which I witnessed a vast
dissatisfaction with justice. Our generation is obsessed with instant
gratification, often determining the value of a post based on how many ‘likes’ it receives. On a more nuanced level, this has affected the way we think and
the speed with which we pass judgment. The negative aspects of this can be
detrimental, but on the positive side, this conditioning has fine-tuned our
sense of intuition and allowed for our processing to be as free-flowing as Instagram photos themselves.

My
hope is that the genuine, visceral response I witnessed on a large scale will
give rise to a rejection of a veil of ignorance behind which we can no longer afford to
hide. We need to acknowledge the differences that separate us—that at
the inception of this country, when “We the People” was written, “We” and
“People” only included white males. We must consider the steps that have not
yet been taken to reshape the ways in which these founding principles have
manifested in our modern-day institutions—including the justice system and even
the Claremont Colleges.

The
real conversation must begin with the Millennials. We have grown up with a
relatively progressive sense of true equality, freedom and justice—all values
that our country strives to uphold. We must not remain stagnant, brushing over
reality and ignoring a truth that is instinctively obvious: that racism still
exists in this country. Let us use the most non-violent methods of
change—education and discourse—to hold up a mirror to our nation, take a full,
critical look at the way things are and move toward more profound
progress.

Taylor Lemmons CM ’17 is an international relations and economics dual major from Denver, Colo.

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