There is no finer source of wisdom about race and moral empathy in our American canon than “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in a small Southern town, accepts the job of defending Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. One night, Finch stands down a white mob intent on lynching both of them, lawyer and defendant. After Atticus’s daughter, Scout, witnesses the hateful scene, her father tells her to try to understand the mob as well as Tom Robinson.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around it.”
No Atticus Finch emerged from the summer of fire in Ferguson and so it lit up again after the grand jury’s decision. And precious little moral empathy has informed the way the country is talking about Ferguson.
In classic drama, tragedy comes when irreconcilable moral imperatives collide.
There is a different kind of tragedy in real life that comes when compromised and impure moral claims collide. That is Ferguson, Missouri.
On one side, the full process of justice played out. A grand jury saw the evidence and rendered a decision. A moral claim, yes, but one that lacks moral authority because of the broader context: a problematic police force in Ferguson and a criminal justice reality in America that discriminates if not persecutes young black males. There can be gross injustice without criminal guilt.
That collides with the obvious injustice of the situation and constitutionally protected protest. These are protests against the killing of an unarmed boy and a reality of poverty, unfairness, discrimination too big, too amorphous to ever have a day in court – but not too big to be ignored year after year. But the violence around those protests has robbed them of moral authority and created new victims of injustice, people’s whose homes and businesses were destroyed.
There is something very modern about it as well: the media’s roles. The coverage has been so overwrought and theatrical that the whole “story” seems somehow phony and inauthentic, managed and predictable.
That Ferguson again saw violence seems to indicate a colossal, top to bottom failure of all the players, from the local government and community leaders, to state officials, to national civil rights leaders, to the attorney general and the president.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has covered the whole saga closely. “On the editorial page, we often use the phrase ‘the St. Louis community,’ but more in hope than in expectation,” it wrote. “Except for sports teams and the weather, people in St. Louis don’t share much in the way of common interests, attitudes, beliefs or goals. We suspect this is true of most places.”
People in the different pods of St. Louis – and of America and of TV-Land – think they know what happened in Ferguson and what should happen.
The Post-Dispatch wrote, “Too many people know they’re right. They don’t want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
That is a variation of Atticus Finch’s advice to Scout.
In trying to think clearly about Ferguson, I will try take Atticus Finch’s advice.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.