Thursday, August 21, 2014
A Daoist Take on the Race Riots in Ferguson Missouri
I've been following the events at Ferguson Missouri with especial interest as the events are taking place close to my dear and beloved wife, who lives in metropolitan St. Louis. There seems to be a consensus emerging that something really wrong is going on in that part of the US, but what exactly seems to be somewhat vague.
Much of the concern seems to be directed at police brutality and the militarization of the police. But as an outsider who has developed a cursory familiarity with the area, I think that people should understand that the St. Louis area suffers deeply from racial segregation. It is absolutely gob smacking to an outsider. For example, there are literally streets you can drive down where one side is filled with beautiful, nice old homes---inhabited by white people; and the other is filled with dilapidated houses where black folks live.
Here's a twelve minute YouTube documentary that pretty much explains the situation and explains how it happens. Pay particular attention to the quick segment that happens at about 7:05 point. It shows egg cartons with black and white eggs and shows how simply not wanting to live in an area where you are out-numbered 2-to-1 in your neighbourhood by people of another race inevitably leads to total segregation.
Another thing to pay attention to is the bit about how real estate agents "steer" prospective home buyers towards neighbourhoods that are majority white or black, and away from one where they don't "belong".
At the end of the documentary, the professor suggests that it is important to take action to end the Institutional sources of segregation instead of seeing it primarily as an issue of personal morality. This is tremendously important, as things like this routinely get seen as individual morality plays.
I suppose that this has something to do with the way evolution has formed our minds. After all, the basis of racism seems to be a genetic disposition to not see anyone who is not related to us as being "Other". This makes sense as it is clear that someone who looks so different probably doesn't share DNA with us, so there is no evolutionary advantage in helping them. But this type of socio-biological analysis misses the point that we have also evolved as societies and relationships of reciprocity between non-related people are the only thing that allows us to function as cities and nations.
I would suggest that a large part of the reason why we see things like the events in Ferguson as morality plays is because of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The Abrahamic religions put a huge emphasis on the idea that we have free will and are able to choose to accept the grace of God or reject it. In contrast, Eastern religions take into account the social context that someone comes from and understands that this greatly influences the decisions that people make. There is a line in the Daoist Taiping Jing where the Celestial Master suggests that people should not condemn someone who does wrong too harshly because they are the product of their childhood and background. Similarly, they shouldn't think too highly of themselves if they do good, for the same reason.
Following the Celestial Master's suggestion, the thing to do is acknowledge whatever emotional reaction one may be feeling about the news. This involves centring the body, taking an inventory of both our physical and mental state, and reminding ourselves that we are self-aware, self-conscious individuals who have at least some control over our emotions and behaviour. This is known as "holding onto the One", and is the core teaching of both the Nei-Yeh and the Taiping Jing.
Once we have "the One" in hand, then the thing to do is to try and understand the Dao of the situation. This involves calmly trying to look for the subtle issues at hand, issues that perhaps the overwhelming majority of people are missing because they are so caught up in their strong emotions. I would suggest that if you do so, you can find something that the overwhelming majority of the media has missed. That is, there is a study that a group of people have done that exposes the real reason why Ferguson Missouri has exploded into violence.
A group that calls themselves the "Arch City Defenders" has prepared and published a report on the entities known as Municipal Courts and their baleful influence on the black community in the Greater St. Louis area. You can read it as a PDF here. It is fairly long, but is easy to read and is worth it. It explains that there are great many little municipalities outside of St. Louis that have independent town ordinances, police forces and municipal court systems. As well, a disproportionately large amount of the city revenue that is raised in these communities comes from fines levied against people in these communities. Ferguson, for example, uses this as its second largest source of income. Moreover, these fines are levied disproportionately against people of colour. And the system is progressively rigged to extract money from poor people who are so close to destitution that even a minor fine of a few hundred dollars or a short stay in jail of less than a week, can be catastrophic.
It is very obvious to anyone who reads through this report that the "system" of places like Ferguson Missouri is designed to keep a boot placed on the neck of black people. This is what racism looks like. It isn't a bunch of boozed-up Klansmen who decide to pull someone from jail and lynch him. (As in the movie "To Kill a Mocking Bird".) But rather a set of laws and regulations that make it extremely difficult for anyone to dig themselves out of debt or poverty. Subtlety is the essence of long-term oppression. And subtlety is how to identify and escape from it. Moral outrage is irrelevant.