When we see the smoldering remains of Ferguson’s main street, we should think about two separate problems that got us there. Separate problems, but problems that overlap.
The first problem is the endemic and persistent poverty present that plagues many African American communities. Poverty has a cyclical nature. It is generational and feeds off itself. Paul Tough wrote an excellent book called How Children Succeed and it chronicles how trauma in childhood significantly messes up a child’s brain. Now “trauma” can be quite broad and applies to people throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. But the prevalence of pervasive childhood trauma is a great indicator of later cognitive and behavioral problems. Damaged children make for damaged adults.
We should then look at how damaging poverty is. And it’s pretty damaging. A 2009 study by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied working memory in children. They looked at allostatic load. Bruce McEwen first proposed allostasis, which is way a body manages stress. So, for instance, you nearly get into a car wreck. Your body gets flooded with adrenaline, your heart pounds, you shake. But you get over it a few hours later as your body “flushes out” that stress response. But if you are constantly exposed to stress, you build up an allostatic load. What Evans and Schamberg found was that allostatic load was the best predictor of performance on short term memory. The higher it was, the poorer kids did on the test. Short term memory is a great indicator of certain types of cognitive abilities.
In other words, what we think of as “genetic advantage” – the upper middle class kids just have favorable genetic advantages that allow them to excel – is really a product of their environment. The brain is a very malleable thing in early childhood and if you pile poverty onto that process – with all the stress that poverty brings – you damage that brain.
And that damage is most prevalent in the last part of the brain to develop: the pre-frontal cortex. And it is in the pre-frontal cortex that judgment resides. That part of the brain may not finish developing until someone is 25. This is why college students think jumping from the roof of their garage into the pool is a good idea.
The problem is that poverty and its attendant stress makes it hard for the judgment centers of the brain to develop. And the results can be seen in everything from 16 year old mothers to the looting in Ferguson last night. Let’s remember that 16 year old moms are not unique to the African American community but are prevalent in most poor communities regardless of race. And 16 year old mothers are going to face stress in trying to raise a child when they themselves are children, and that only perpetuates this cycle. The stress they feel is passed on to their children.
So when we talk about the legacy of poverty in this country – whether we are talking about urban African Americans or Appalachian whites or Hispanics along the Rio Grande or Native Americans on reservations – we are talking about a form of environmental brain damage.
The second point is that of the police. What was most shocking about Ferguson was that the grand jury – with all the questions about what really happened – decided not to let a trial sort out the conflicting stories. But given the current state of US law, it’s pretty hard to convict a policeman for the use of lethal force.
This is tied, at least in part, to our unreasonable fears about crime.
Violent crime is falling in this country and has been for the last 20 years. But we live in a world where the news follows the age old maxim of “If it bleeds, it leads.” If you watch the news – or hell, if you watch CSI or any police procedural – you are bombarded with the idea that we live in a world of menace, violence and death, when in fact, the world has never been safer.
That fear of violent crime has led us to militarize our police force and inculcates in them a feeling of being under siege. Certainly, your average police officer spends most of his time dealing with the most troubled elements of society. The corrosive effect of that, combined with the environment of fear, leads to a siege mentality. It also increases that allostatic load in the police. Utah recently found that the leading cause of violent death is the police. Utah is not an especially violent place, yet the police feel they need to use lethal force more than gangs or even perpetrators of domestic violence.
So we have a system that puts stressed out police into stressed out communities and basically gives them carte blanche to use deadly force.
Everything we saw in Ferguson is a product of this flawed system. The looters burning their own community are simply giving free rein to their anger over their long term prospects. The police with sniper rifles tossing tear gas into violent and peaceful protesters alike are simply responding to the siege they feel.
Ultimately, we might be able to see some police reform. Body cameras would be an excellent place to start. They would help with evidence collection and exonerate innocent cops, while holding bad cops accountable. All of this would help ease tensions between police and the communities they patrol. And while police violence is increasingly prevalent in minority communities, it exists in white communities, too. Because this isn’t a racial issue – or shouldn’t be – maybe we can see this needed reform.
If we are going basically allow the police to shot people and almost never be brought to trial, then we need to demand more accountability from the police. This could unite Paulite libertarians and African American civil rights activists.
But we will continue to ignore the pervasive and corrosive effects of poverty that continues to weigh heaviest on minority communities. Because the pictures of African Americans looting stores and burning buildings will create a comfort level in turning away. There will be millions of people who think, “They deserve this. Let them rot. They don’t deserve my help.”
We will continue to see a cycle of poverty, handed down from generation to generation, from teen parent to teen parent. Exceptional individuals will make it out from time to time, to give lie to the fact that a poverty-riddled environment is a poor environment to grow up in.
And we will ignore the overwhelming links between poverty, race and childhood development and watch another generation be blighted before our eyes. And our willingness to turn away from our fellow American in this is overwhelmingly a question of race. Not the racism of the burning cross or the lynch mob, but the racism of the great mass of people who sit by and let the cross burn and the body to swing from the tree.
John Stuart Mill said, we “should know that bad men need no better opportunity than when good men look on and do nothing.”
And yet, doing nothing seems to always be the preferable course when the evil is being done to the poor. While that’s not unique to America, the elements of race are our special curse. A curse we are eager to turn away from and pretend it’s not there.