On Monday, the Ferguson grand jury ruled that there was no probable cause to bring any charges against Darren Wilson. On August 9, Wilson, a white policeman, shot and killed Michael Brown, while the 18-year-old black teen was walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri.
During the 110 days since Brown was pronounced dead, Ferguson has vividly revealed the US’ racial faultlines, unveiled its stark, systemic inequities, and showcased to the world the racial sectarianism that still stratifies and segregates people in the US.
“A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect,” wrote W.E.B. Dubois, indicting structural inequity and exclusion as the very seeds that rear racial segregation. Dubois’ US was marred by formal segregation. A segregation that not only marked black and brown Americans as inferior; but relentlessly exposed them to legal processes that vilified their racial identities, and exonerated their assailants.
Exactly 110 years later, Dubois’ words have never been more prescient. The thinker’s words foretell a divide that continues to fracture the US along racial lines, and exposes its most marginalised communities to structures that continuously persecute – rather than protect – them. Racial inequities on the ground, perpetuated by politics, law and their slanted processes, drive the racial sectarianism that marred the US at its inception, middle and current passages.
US’ tribal divisions
“Sectarianism” may seem both geographically and conceptually foreign to the modern American experience. First, it connotes a primordial and tribal division commonly used to characterise warring factions in the Middle East or the “Muslim world”. Second, it is a discord and division almost exclusively linked to religion.
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Yet, if religious rifts are the primary lines of conflict in the Middle East, then the US’ ungodly racial divide looms as its most salient spaces of tension and violence, discord and disenfranchisement. Racism historically, and still today, stands as the US’ sectarianism.
American sectarianism is nurtured by two complimentary myths. The first holds that, “racism is individual and aberrational”, stripping political, economic, and legal structures from any responsibility in perpetuating racial inequality.
The second myth contends that these very structures are “colour-blind and objective systems, which function without racial bias”. Together, these myths not only caricature the meaning of racism, and vastly narrow its scope, but more importantly, conceal how government structures continually reinforce the US’ racial sectarianism.
The population of Ferguson is 67 percent black. However, 50 of its 53 policemen, including Wilson, are white. The grand jury, which ultimately decided to bring no charges, comprised nine whites and three black members.
Ferguson was only demographically a “black community”. Its political institutions, police force, and grand jury were overwhelmingly white. Therefore, racial division in Ferguson aligned neatly with power disparities, which became blatantly clear when the grand jury rendered a definition of justice that served the interests of one officer, Wilson, instead of the collective concerns of the 14,200 black residents of Ferguson. Blacks simply lived in Ferguson, while whites controlled it.
In both its religious and racial form, sectarianism is seldom symmetrical. Typically, one faction holds comparative supremacy within the halls of power, and therefore, manipulates legal processes to its advantage and to the detriment of its rival faction. Popular illustrations of war-torn Arab and Muslim states overwhelmingly centre on the sectarian splits, which consequently simplify the distinct and complicated crises taking place from state to state.
While neatly crafted myths perpetuate a thin veneer of racial harmony, Ferguson offers a sharp dose of the US’ unequal reality, which pierces through that veneer to reveal the racial sectarianism that still divides the US.
Yet, American racial hostilities and division is manifested by embedded and still growing racial segregation in virtually every major US city; the consistent assault and erosion of affirmative action by the courts and through the ballot box; an aggregate prison population that is 61 percent black and Latino; and police officers that profile, persecute and slay black and brown youth without punishment.
While neatly crafted myths perpetuate a thin veneer of racial harmony, Ferguson offers a sharp dose of the US’ unequal reality, which pierces through that veneer to reveal the racial sectarianism that still divides the US. A sectarianism where the most vulnerable are victimised, the racially excluded are vast villains, and the law and its processes are deployed to deepen primordial racial inequities. The nihilism and hopelessness embodied by protesters in Ferguson are, echoing Dubois, bred by a system that continuously strips a people of its dignity.
Racial rifts and conflicts continue to fortify US sectarianism. A sectarianism that simultaneously rips this country apart as we gaze eastward, and ridicule distant peoples for their backward, tribal and primal divides – which deters us acknowledging our own sectarian crisis, even as it unfolds in our own back yards and on our televisions.
Khaled A. Beydoun is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School Law. He is a native of Detroit.