Let’s Talk about Ferguson, Missouri: Institutional Racism and White Privilege

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Michael Brown Source: rollingout.com

Recently, I had a discussion board in an online class that asked students to provide an example of a hate crime and then answer several questions. One student responded to the questions using what has been happening over the past few days in Ferguson, Missouri as her example of a hate crime. She then went on to explain how the shooting death of the eighteen year old unarmed black man by the white police officer, along with the militarized response of the primarily white police force against the primarily black protesters, constituted a hate crime or a crime that is committed against a person or property “with an added element of bias”, in this case–race (FBI, 2014, para #1).

I responded to the post and explained how this was not a hate crime because the police had not committed a crime (the police officer involved in the shooting has not been charged as of yet) and it would be incredibly difficult to prove in court the officers acted with racial bias, which is necessary to prove a hate crime. Instead it could be classified as institutional racism, because although there weren’t written policies stating the police in Ferguson were expected to treat blacks and whites differently, differential treatment was implemented informally with very real consequences as noted in her examples. “Simply put, it was racism by habit, rather than by intent” (Slayton, 2009, para # 5).

Satisfied with my response, I then had dinner with my husband where we continued to discuss what was happening in Ferguson. However, this time my responses were from the perspective of the mother of a seven year old son. I attempted to put myself in the shoes of the parents of the murdered young man. I began to think about how it would feel to fear sending my son out the door in the morning, worrying that he may have a negative encounter with the police or someone in the community solely because they are afraid of young black men. And perhaps worst of all, the agony of knowing this encounter could end with him being hurt or, worse yet, killed. I began to understand why my student viewed the events in Ferguson as a hate crime, but I also became keenly aware of my white privilege.

Although I felt tremendous sympathy for Michael Brown’s family I realized I cannot empathize with them. What happened to their son is, quite frankly, not likely to happen to my son. My husband and I are both white, as is our son. My son most likely will not be stopped walking to school or work and searched because he appears to be suspicious. I do not have to ask my son not wear the hood on his sweat shirt because people might mistake him for a criminal and shoot him. I won’t have to remind my son to not have more than one friend in the car on a Friday night because he might get pulled over by the police. I won’t need to have these discussions with my son when he is a teenager because he is white.

The color of my skin allows me to avoid having these difficult conversations with my child, but it also allows me to avoid having these difficult conversations with others – colleagues, neighbors, friends, legislators, police, etc. We cannot move forward without acknowledging where we have been and what is going on now. As Americans, both black and white, we have to step up and accept as a society we have biases against young black males and figure out a way to move past them. The situation is critical and the time is now.

Danielle McDonald, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Criminal Justice
Northern Kentucky University


FBI. “Hate Crime Overview”. Retrieved 8/17/2014 from, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview

Slayton, Robert. (12/9/2009). “Institutional Racism”. Retrieved 8/17/2014 from, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-slayton/institutional-racism_b_384359.html

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