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Editors' Picks The Politic Blog

More than Some Cops and Some Frat Boys

In 1960, civil rights activist Ella Baker gave a speech entitled “More Than a Hamburger” in front of a group of students. The students were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed that same year by the organizers of sit-ins at segregated lunch-counters in Greensboro, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee. Baker’s speech reminded those students that when they sat-in, they did so not just for their place at the counter, but for their place in politics and society. Baker was not arguing that all-white lunch-counters should be treated as a symbol of every Jim Crow law on the books. She was, though, nudging students towards seeing this one issue as part of a larger societal problem: laws and politics that excluded a whole class of people.

The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner recall the civil rights movement. The connections are too obvious to miss. And Baker’s lesson, though one small story in a sea of perhaps more memorable civil rights anecdotes, seems especially pertinent as we decide how to respond to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford, among many others.

Equally hard to ignore is the controversy surrounding Rolling Stone’s chilling story of a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia (UVA). Jackie’s story, Rolling Stone’s flubbed reporting and subsequent apology, and the angry spotlight now focused on university policies surrounding sexual assault—these problems seem a world away from the streets of Ferguson. As a consequence, the responses to UVA and to Ferguson have been treated as separate, their only link the front page they happen to share.

But UVA and Ferguson are connected. Both have been met with protest and apology, anger and shame. The cases of Michael Brown and Jackie are both complex and ambiguous, but our focus on parsing the details obscures their connection to the larger issues of which they ought remind us; our focus on establishing the concrete facts of what happened on the ground has made the discussion myopic. We have missed Ella Baker’s point. Each case provides an opportunity to discuss social and political biases that deliberately oppress long before (and long after) a rape or an encounter with an officer in blue. Sooner rather than later, the rhetorical tide sweeping up Michael Brown and Jackie needs to turn toward those broader societal and legal biases and away from specific victims and cases. If we fail to see beyond these specific cases, we fail to really learn what they have to teach us.

As Ella Baker pointed out, movements have lots of ways to be successful, and focusing on single issues might be a necessary first step on the way to changing larger systems. But there is a difference between the way talk about a problem and the way we go about fixing it. There are sit-ins and die-ins, court cases and hearings. There are also articles and speeches, teach-ins and speaking out. Effective discourse points beyond the battle to the war: it allows us to see past the protest to the movement. It is this discourse that has thus far painted a picture in which police brutality and campus rape culture are the most important problem. It is this discourse that needs to go a step further and make institutional racism and societal sexism the subjects of its rhetoric and the targets of the movements it supports.

Take Ferguson. Discussion of the killings themselves in mainstream and even left-leaning media has focused on grand juries and, to an almost obsessive degree, the specifics of each case. Discussion of the protests by those same outlets has centered on immediate demands: stop police brutality, stop racial profiling, end the “broken windows” policy. These specific and narrow demands do deserve a place in public discourse, and it is a good thing that they are being pushed to the fore. But almost entirely absent from the discussion is Michael Brown’s school, part of one of the nation’s worst public education districts, which lies less than five miles from Clayton, Missouri’s richest (and very white) county. Absent too, in discussion of the death of Eric Garner are the demographics of New York, or any major U.S. city, one glance at which would reveal a startling de-facto racial segregation. Largely unmentioned are the recent steps to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, or the “War on Drugs” that has landed black people in jail in numbers and with sentences that are staggeringly disproportionate to their crimes, or multiple studies that have revealed it is harder for people with “black” names to get a response to an email to a professor, or a call back from a prospective employer.

These add up to a racism embedded deep in America’s social mores, politics, and legal system — and it is this racism that needs to take center stage in the post-Ferguson discussion. The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner should inspire immediate protests about white police officers killing young black men, but they should inspire discourse that is more ambitious. We need to indict the social and political structures that made the neighborhood that Darren Wilson patrolled overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, underrepresented and black in the first place.

To a striking degree, the same holds true for the conversation around Jackie and UVA. Sexual assault in college is a huge problem (though we may be exaggerating just how huge), and the policies that universities have adopted in response are deeply flawed, both for the victim and for the accused. The conversation Rolling Stone has inspired is thus one about college rape culture. But we are almost negligent if we do not expand the discussion to societal sexism, the less visible forerunner to sexual violence, which is a problem that plagues not just our college campuses, but American society as a whole. It starts as soon as we begin absorbing media and culture and ends…well, certainly not when we earn our college degrees.

In America, sexism is often subtler than racism. With sexism, it is sometimes harder to point to specific laws and court rulings which led to the generational accumulation of oppression of one group, the kind of laws and rulings that make Ta-Nehisi Coates argue for reparations. Yet UVA’s case points to a larger problem: why, even in a community at least nominally devoted to enlightenment, does sexual assault continue to occur? What in our culture makes male-privileged spaces like fraternities seem acceptable? And if frats encourage such a blatantly sexist culture, does that culture disappear post-graduation? We need to indict the parts of our society that encourage the objectification of women before and beyond our college years.

Voices from the right are skeptical of the leap we are trying to make. How can you prove, they ask, that Brown and Garner’s cases connect to the racist system you claim exists in this country? How can you unequivocally show that Jackie’s rape, if it did happen, was the product of a sexist society and not of vicious, deranged individuals? The proper answer is simply that we cannot, and we need not. These cases will never be “perfect” examples of racism and sexism, because they are simply too complicated. Proof of the connection of a single crime to a vast, national sickness is impossible, unless Darren Wilson goes on T.V. and tells us he shot Michael Brown with race in his mind. But proof is unnecessary for this connection to be made. We should be able to use Michael Brown and Jackie as a spark to discuss the broader issues they raise without having to prove their immediate connection to those issues. They are symptoms of larger problems that decades of history and research have demonstrated to exist, from the codification of discrimination in racist housing policy to the daily manifestations of sexism in our media.

The way we talk about things matters. Just as movements on the streets decide which political demands they will march for on each given day, discourse in the press chooses its political battles when it decides how to frame those movements and the cases from which they were born. “Current sit-ins and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger that a hamburger or even a giant-sized coke,” Ella Baker said in her speech to SNCC back in 1960. Today, when we talk about these cases, we should be talking not only about the statistics of ‘stop and frisk’ or the severity of college rape culture, not only where Michael Brown’s DNA showed up or which of Jackie’s friends was not interviewed, but about how historical and present-day racism and sexism affect men and women who see themselves as more than just their bodies. Some of the press has started to do this, but it needs to become the norm. If it does not, we risk losing ourselves in specifics of single events and in so doing failing to discuss what these cases are ultimately about.