Democracy in Ferguson

The Justice Department reveals rampant discrimination and bigotry in the city's police force. What now?

By Nathan Pippenger

Last November, when Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch gave a press conference announcing that no charges would be filed against Officer Darren Wilson following the death of Michael Brown, I—like many others—was taken aback by his defensive, sharp tone. As McCulloch berated “social media” (read: upset citizens) for the way the discussion about Ferguson unfolded, he became an oblivious symbol of the alienation between that community and its public leaders. Thanks to a new Justice Department report dropping today, we’ll soon have a better sense of how deep that alienation goes. The early signs are not good.

The report, which The New York Times describes as “scathing,” documents routine violation of the constitutional rights of Ferguson’s black residents, violations which apparently stem from a bigoted culture within the police department—evidenced, among other things, by the sharing of racist jokes on official city email accounts. That shocking detail is sure to grab attention, but these statistics deserve notice too: Between 2012 and 2014, African Americans (who make up about 67 percent of Ferguson’s population) accounted for nearly 90 percent of incidents where the police used force, and more than 90 percent of all arrests. PBS has further details: In a population of 21,000 people, 16,000 have outstanding arrest warrants. Black residents are the target of more than 95 percent of petty offense charges, and they are twice as likely as whites to be pulled over and searched, even though they are 26 percent less likely to be caught with contraband. Combined with other investigations into the aggressive fines levied by Ferguson’s local government, this looks for all the world like a racially targeted bilking operation.

The question, then, is what to do next. The Justice report will bring much-needed scrutiny to these practices, but eventually, national attention and the pressure it brings will turn elsewhere. To promote sustained change, UC San Diego political scientist Zoltan Hajnal advocates an elegant solution: changing the timing of local elections. “African Americans had almost no representation in city government,” Hajnal points out about Ferguson, a fact that “shaped almost everything that happened in that Missouri suburb.” To increase African Americans’ representation on bodies like the school board and city council, Ferguson and similar municipalities could change their local elections to coincide with presidential elections, when the most voters turn out. Evidence from other cities shows that rescheduling “stand-alone” elections to coincide with prominent national elections nearly doubles voter turnout and dramatically reduces minority underrepresentation.

There will be long, difficult arguments over ways to address the many issues facing cities like Ferguson, but this one is a no-brainer. As political theorists like Elizabeth Anderson have argued, public servants who don’t hail from the disadvantaged parts of heavily segregated communities risk estrangement from the public they’re ostensibly there to serve. Segregation fractures the public’s experiences and perspectives, and if the racial segregation of Ferguson’s neighborhoods is replicated among its leaders, shared democratic life breaks apart. People who roll their eyes at this sort of argument—you see a similar cynicism in complaints about “quotas” and affirmative action—should be reminded that unrepresentative government is nothing less than an ugly outgrowth of modern segregation, and indeed one of the key forces still perpetuating it. As Anderson has written, when advantaged groups lose contact with disadvantaged groups, “they become complacent and insular: those people’s problems are not ours.” But the key point of living in a democracy, of course, is that the words “We the People” actually mean something. There is something ugly, and literally undemocratic, about dismissing our stake in the problems of “those people.” As long as “We” identify ourselves this way, they’re our problems too.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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