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The limits of white comfort in Ferguson, Mo.


In Wednesday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, renowned essayist Joseph Epstein got to the heart of what went wrong in Ferguson, Mo. — although not for the reasons he asserted.

A St. Louis suburb, Ferguson has been the scene of tragedy this week. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed Saturday by a police officer. That a law enforcement agent killed an unarmed black teenager sparked protests and vandalism, with police responding by using smoke bombs and tear gas.

The past month has seen an alarming series of similar tragedies:

Eric Gardner, 43, died July 17 in New York City after being put in a chokehold by an officer when confronted for selling untaxed cigarettes. The chokehold maneuver was banned by the police department in 1993.

John Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police Aug. 5 inside a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, while holding a .177-caliber BB rifle he had picked up from a store shelf.

Ezell Ford, 25, was shot and killed by a Los Angeles officer Monday. A police department spokesman said Ford knocked the officer to the ground and went for his gun. But Ford’s mother said the young man was lying on the ground when he was shot in the back.

The repeated incidents of unarmed black people being killed by police officers are disturbing. What’s equally shocking is that many whites like Epstein just don’t comprehend the issue.

Epstein begins his opinion piece, titled “What’s missing in Ferguson, Mo.,” by summarizing the narrative involving Brown’s death. That’s the first paragraph, the only one where he refers to the victim. He then spends the next seven paragraphs lamenting the poor quality of black leadership.

“Missing, not that anyone is likely to have noticed, was the calming voice of a national civil rights leader of the kind that was so impressive during the 1950s and ‘60s,” Epstein writes. “In those days there was Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Whitney Young of the National Urban League; Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute — all solid, serious men, each impressive in different ways, who through dignified forbearance and strategic action brought down a body of unequivocally immoral laws aimed at America’s black population.”

In Epstein’s judgment, the major problem with incidents like the fatal shooting in Ferguson is that they only seem to attract “bottom-feeders.” Never mind that a human being was senselessly killed. Epstein believes black people should produce a leader with whom whites feel comfortable, just like the civil rights giants of old.

“King died in 1968, at age 39; Young in 1971 at 50; Wilkins in 1981 at 80; and Rustin in 1987 at 75,” Epstein writes. “None has been replaced by men of anywhere near the same high caliber. In their place today there is only Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, each of whom long ago divested himself of the moral force required of true leadership.”

The accomplishments of leaders like King, Rustin, Wilkins and Young appear more visible with the passage of time. When we compare how things used to be to how they are, the changes that occurred for the better are obvious.

But this retrospective view blurs the fact that these men faced considerable resistance to achieving their goals, much of the same resistance that civil rights leaders confront today. Epstein writes that black people “largely, and inexplicably, remain pledged to a political party whose worn-out ideas have done little for them while claiming much.” He ignores, however, the horrific way that people like King were treated by whites of all political ideologies, including those in the conservative movement.

The problem facing civil rights leaders in the ‘50s and ‘60s wasn’t merely the need to change some laws, as Epstein claims. It was altering the mindset of racial superiority and privilege that whites have embraced, which continues to plague black people.

As I’ve written in a previous column, this mindset leads most whites to hold untruthful stereotypes about black people. One is that they are more prone to crime and violence than whites.

This stereotype helps explain why unarmed black people time and again end up dead at the hands of police officers for no good reason. Other false stereotypes keep many white employers from considering black people as qualified candidates for job openings, which perpetuates inner city poverty.

In his classification of proper black leadership, Epstein’s arrogance is mind-boggling: “Someone is needed who commands the respect of his or her people and the admiration of that vast — I would argue preponderate — number of middle class whites who understand that progress for blacks means progress for the entire country.”

In other words, whites like Epstein will sit on their hands until black people take action to make them feel more comfortable — which, if history is any guide, will never happen. It’s as if black people needed our approval for who should represent their interests.

Yes, the black community has self-induced problems it must confront. But this alone won’t eliminate tragedies like what occurred in Ferguson, as Epstein implies.

Challenging persistent bias and white indifference to injustices committed against people of color is necessary to reducing roadblocks to freedom and equality. The first step for those of us who are white is to admit that we cling to racial privilege, to the detriment of others, and we must readjust our priorities.

For Epstein to ignore the true catastrophe in Ferguson — the loss of human life at the hands of an agent of the government — is outrageous. But given our white-dominated society’s history of overlooking the suffering of minorities, his reaction isn’t surprising.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to

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