The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have been described as a mirror into contemporary America, but they are also something else: A crystal ball.
Look past the headlines — the debates over race and police militarization that have surfaced after the killing of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer — and one can glimpse America’s future, some historians and political scientists say.
No one is talking about an impending race war or a police state, but something more subtle. Unless Americans re-examine some assumptions they’ve made about themselves, they argue, Ferguson could be the future.
Assumption No. 1: Tiger Woods is going to save us
It’s called the “browning of America.” Google the phrase and you’ll get 18 million hits. By 2050, most of the nation’s citizens are expected to be people of color, according to the Pew Research Center.
Dig beneath the Google links and one can detect an emerging assumption: Racial flashpoints like Ferguson will fade in the future because no single race will be dominant. You could call it the Tiger Woods effect. The New American will claim multiple racial origins like Woods, the pro golfer. Demographic change will accomplish what a thousand national conversations on race could never do: lessen the sting of racial conflict.
A dramatic increase in interracial marriages will change the racial landscape as more people cross racial and ethnic lines to marry. But that change won’t be a cure-all, says Rory Kramer, a sociology and criminology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
He says racial progress is not inevitable with the browning of America.
“I don’t want to deny the optimism,” Kramer says. “I deny the assumption that it will happen without effort.”
So does research from a prominent American sociologist. Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” says his studies of multiracial neighborhoods in America show that more diversity initially erodes community.
In his 2007 paper, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Putnam says members of multiracial communities initially tend to expect the worst, distrust neighbors and withdraw.
“Residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down,’ ” Putnam writes. “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”
If Americans want to live in a tranquil country that’s free of racial conflict they would have to change their character and history, another scholar says.
They would have to become like Iceland.
There are no Fergusons there. The United Nations commissioned a report last year that concluded its citizens are among the most contented in the world.
Iceland is so free of conflict that the nation was shocked last year when a police officer shot a man to death. It was the first time police had killed anyone in Iceland in 70 years. Most police in Iceland don’t carry guns.
But that happiness comes at a price, says Lisa Corrigan, director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, who cites the Iceland comparison. Iceland has one of the most homogeneous populations in the world — everyone looks the same. And they deliberately keep it that way.
“Iceland is one of the happiest places in the world,” Corrigan says.
Corrigan doesn’t accept the notion that most white people will welcome the browning of a country that she says was built on white male supremacy.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she says, “because power is shifting and white people think that their whiteness is property to be defended.”
Assumption No. 2: We’ll always have democracy
Some observers have reduced the events in Ferguson to race and class divisions, but there are others who say the protests are ultimately a question about whether democracy can work.
The political makeup of Ferguson has been well-documented. Two-thirds of the city’s population is black. The mayor and police chief are white; as are five of the six city council members. There are three blacks out of 53 people in its police department.
Many Americans love the concept of the melting pot, the notion that every ethnic group eventually becomes a part of the country’s mainstream. Yet some scholars say you can’t have harmony in a multiracial community until hard choices are made about power: what group gets what and how.
Kramer, the Villanova professor, quotes the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass to make his point.
“Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.”
Because people tend not to share power, there will be more Fergusons in America’s future: isolated communities ignored by leaders and harassed by heavily armed police forces, says Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at LaSalle University in Pennsylvania.
The nation won’t have a vibrant middle class because of persistent income inequality; it will primarily be the rich and poor, he says. The poor won’t vote because they’re too disenchanted, and politicians will ignore the concerns of most Americans because wealthy people control politics, Gallagher says.
“I see us looking more and more like Latin America,” he says.
The courts could intervene on behalf of racial minorities and the poor. The citizens of Ferguson could, for example pressure their city leaders to place more blacks in their police force.
Yet the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has changed the legal landscape to make such efforts more difficult, Gallagher says. The court has consistently ruled against any diversity efforts hinting at racial preferences.
“This particular court is hostile to the idea of using race in any situation to honestly address ongoing inequalities,” Gallagher says.
Racial minorities who feel like they’re excluded won’t find much empathy from ordinary white Americans either, says Kramer, the Villanova professor. He says many whites operate under this assumption: If they gain, I lose.
That assumption, he says, is played out in Southern states that refuse to accept Obamacare, in the rise of voter ID laws and in the political version of white flight — where predominantly white communities break away from their counties to incorporate their own cities when too many minorities move into nearby neighborhoods.
He says American democracy was called a “noble experiment” for a reason: People didn’t know if democracy, let alone a multiethnic democracy, would work.
Democracy in America could look more like how protesters describe Ferguson: a place where government maintains the façade of a democracy, but doesn’t function like one.
“People don’t realize that we’re still in the experimental stage,” Kramer says. “My fear is that we’re not going to actually gain true democracy.”
Assumption No. 3: It’s always about race
Some see another type of frightening scenario for America based on Ferguson. To them, it’s premature to say that Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown to death, was motivated by racism.
They see Ferguson as a stage for the rise of “racial grifters.”
That’s the term John Nolte, a columnist for Breitbart.com, uses to describe leaders who rallied to the side of black protesters in Ferguson.
“They go into these areas and scream racism before the facts are out and all of a sudden, there’s a racial issue,” he says. “They grift on race to profit from it, like Al Sharpton.”
Nolte rejects the notion that some white Americans fear the nation becoming a majority brown country. He says he was one of a handful of whites who lived in a Latino community in Los Angeles for years, and he never had a problem. His wife is Latina, and his extended family has people of all races.
He says he’s “pro-miscegenation,” a term he borrows from his late friend, Andrew Breitbart, because ultimately “people are people.”
“The American people get along very well,” Nolte says. “It’s only when you have situations like you have in Ferguson — and the racial grifters move in and the media moves to back them up — that things turn into what they do.”
Nolte says there’s a hidden motive behind the furor in racial flashpoints like Ferguson, and that media organizations like CNN are complicit.
He says the furor over the black teenager Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida took place just before the last presidential election. The uproar over Ferguson is taking place just before this year’s midterm elections.
“If these things aren’t happening every few months, if we start to heal and look past racial divisions, the Democrats lose 25% of the black or Hispanic vote and they’re done as a national party.”
The country won’t get past its racial divisions anytime soon because it’s the only way Democrats can win, he says.
“There’s too much profit in it for the racial grifters and the media for anyone to try to heal us,” he says. “We never talk about how far we’ve come.”
Racial divisions will remain a permanent part of America’s future as long as the media tells black people that the criminal justice system is stacked against them, says Ben Shapiro, author of “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America.”
According to a 2013 report released by the Missouri attorney general, African-Americans are highly over-represented in crime statistics. They accounted for 93% of arrests after traffic stops, 92% of searches and 86% of traffic stops in Ferguson.
“The cure is not to tell people that the criminal justice system is stacked against them; the cure is to minimize criminal activity and identify lawbreaking officers and prosecute them,” says Shaprio, who is also editor-in-chief at the online magazine TruthRevolt.
Shapiro says he is more concerned about another way America may decline in the future: the erosion of values like hard work, marriage and education.
“The reality is that if you want to escape poverty, you only have to make a couple of decisions: Finish school, don’t have a baby out of wedlock and get a job — that’s it,” he says.
Assumption No. 4: We need to get past our racial differences
Whenever a racial flashpoint erupts in America, weary people on both sides of the issue tend to ask the same questions:
When are we going to get past race? Why can’t we all just be Americans? Can’t we all just get along?
But what if we shouldn’t just get along? What if the constant conflict among different races and points of view is, in some ways, good for America?
That’s the perspective of Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale is an authority on affirmative action in higher education and an economist.
He says society can’t have diversity without disruption and that scholars know from research that “from that tension comes great creativity.”
The trick is to harness that tension for good, Carnevale says.
“If you have only white men sitting in a room making decisions, you get low-quality decisions and very little change,” he says. “If you include a woman and a minority in that room, the whole process changes. You get more quality and innovation.”
He says America is a successful country partly because its citizens never stop arguing. Those clashes force people to think, abandon what no longer works and innovate.
“Quiet, peaceful communities rarely invent things,” Carnevale says. “The Romans failed because they kept marrying each other and they all looked the same. Their habits became set. There was no challenge to the elites.”
Protests like those in Ferguson will continue because many whites still believe that “what happens to somebody is about them, and is not about the circumstances in which they live.”
Yet eventually there will be a “third wave” of racial minorities, Carnevale says. And those people will bring a different sensibility to the way we regard race and class.
“There are two ways to change a democracy,” he says. One is to change its leaders and the other is to change its people.
“And the people are changing.”
By John Blake