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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  


Folks who see the Ferguson, MO, disturbances solely in terms of race are missing an important element—one that may be more significant than race. Yes, race is an element—no denying that. The history of race relations in America has left its scars. But racial grievance is not enough to explain these disturbances. Many African Americans are appalled at what’s been happening and wish mightily that the disturbances had never begun. An article I read in an Atlantic magazine recently leads me to the other element, the one that’s probably more important than race. It was about school integration in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. When court supervision guided its schools, Tuscaloosa had one middle school for every grade and one high school for all students, so all schools were fully integrated. After court supervision ended in the 1990s, Tuscaloosa returned to the traditional neighborhood schools. The new normal is that almost 1/3 of Tuscaloosa’s African American students attend “all-black” schools, and just over 2/3 attend multi-racial schools. The “aha moment” in the article came when the writer described the 2/3 of African American kids in multiracial schools: they mostly come from “two-parent, two-garage families.” And the kids in all-black schools? They’re mostly from poor, single-parent families from a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Do you see what’s happened? Both black and white families with middle-class values—which include marriage and steady work—have fled the neighborhood dominated by families without those values. They know the culture of neighborhoods without such values is riddled with dangerous evils like idleness, drugs, and violence. The important element in Tuscaloosa, then, is not race—not if 2/3 of black families are living in middle-class, integrated settings and sending their kids to schools with other kids from the same settings. The important element is the culture of poverty. And that, it seems clear, is the missing element in what I’ve read about the disturbances in Ferguson. Yes, some newspaper stories report that poverty has spiked in Ferguson over the last decade, but they do not tie the culture of poverty to the disturbances, which they keep describing simply as “racial.” Yet we know that neither black folks nor white folks from solid, middleclass families with strong work ethics would be looting stores and attacking police command centers. So what kind of folks do loot and riot? Folks alienated from society not by simply by race but by their own culture of poverty. If they do not work steadily, if they don’t have jobs and income to protect, if they live on “benefits” rather than “earnings,” then what do they have to lose if they loot and burn and thus destroy others’ businesses and others’ jobs? People of all races who contribute to society have a vested interest in preserving it. People of all races who’ve never contributed have no such interest. It’s not race that produces violence. It’s class. Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in American Literature at Lyon College. He can be reached at