The international spotlight has recently been shining on Ferguson, Mo., after an 18-year-old black man was fatally shot by a white police officer. There was massive national and international media coverage, much of it engendered by the tantalizing thought that here was a clear-cut case of racism leading to police brutality and indicative of the evil inherent in American society. Violent demonstrations and riots ensued, with massive property damage and many outside agitators descending on the town, supposedly to guarantee justice as defined by mob mentality.
Perhaps it would be useful to examine the tragedy with the facts on the table rather than through the lenses of hypersensitized emotions stimulated by those attempting to exploit the situation. Michael Brown was 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds. He had marijuana in his system and was purportedly involved in a strong-arm robbery prior to the shooting. He and a companion were walking in the middle of the street, obstructing traffic and were, therefore, admonished by a police officer to move to the sidewalk. Mr. Brown, who may have been pharmacologically impaired, became belligerent and the ensuing struggle produced facial trauma and an orbital fracture of the police officer’s face. The officer, who may have been dazed by a blow to the cranium severe enough to produce a fracture, attempted to apprehend the assailant and shots were fired, six of which struck the suspect, resulting in a fatality.
Regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum, we can all agree that this was a horrible tragedy and needless discarding of a precious life. How could this have been avoided? Two obvious answers: The officer could have simply ignored his duty and backed off when it became apparent that his instructions would not be followed, thereby avoiding a confrontation, or Mr. Brown could have complied with the officer’s instructions, according to his civic duties.
If police officers generally adopted the first solution, chaos would reign supreme in all of our streets. If the populace generally adopted the second solution, there would be even fewer incidents of police violence. Last year, 100 black males were killed by police in the United States. In the same year, 5,000 blacks were killed by other blacks, the vast majority being males. Could it be that we are erroneously being manipulated into making this incident into a racial issue when, in fact, it is a component of a much larger social issue?
Why are there so many young black men in the streets of America with defiant attitudes that frequently lead to incarceration or death? Could it be that a large number of them grow up without a father figure to teach them how to relate to authority and teach them the meaning of personal responsibility? This is not to say that mothers cannot convey these important social lessons, as mine did. But in too many cases, these young, unwed mothers have never themselves been exposed to personal responsibility and self-esteem, and the vicious cycle continues. As a society, we must concentrate on ways to break this tragic cycle, which is producing a higher poverty rate in black communities across America over the past five years with the attendant increasing frustration that can easily produce potentially explosive, tinderbox situations, as we have seen in Ferguson.
Once we get the most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen back on track with sensible economic policies, we should devote some of the tax revenues generated to child care facilities, which will allow many of those unwed mothers to get their General Education Development or higher degree and become self-supporting. There are also a number of programs across the nation that offer free classes that teach social and job skills, which will give many of the young men some different options. We must concentrate on these kinds of programs, because we cannot afford to lose large segments of our society to despair and underachievement in an increasingly competitive world. We have a social crisis brewing if we continue down the path we are on now, but we have the power to change our downward course with true compassion that allows people to rise and escape dependency.
Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University and author of the new book “One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future” (Sentinel).