Op-Ed

Ferguson, like Appalachia, suffers from social and economic inequality

Kieren Weisert of Corbin is a freshman at Columbia University in New York.
Kieren Weisert of Corbin is a freshman at Columbia University in New York.

The streets were electric and the people raged with an emotion that was simmering black, as hot blood mixed with the rain residue on the ground. That night, it was announced that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted by a grand Jury.

In response, protesters at Columbia University gathered in full force to respond.

I, on the other hand, stayed at the library, detached. I had no doubt that the decision was wrong, yet why was I not willing to yell for it?

I realized it was cultural. I am a white male from Appalachia and did not feel welcome within the movement, did not feel there was a rural white space for a "black issue." My mind was segregating against myself.

Yet, the divide between myself and the protest movement isn't accidental. Rural whites and inner-city blacks have been set at odds for political reasons for decades in America. In Jesse Helms' North Carolina, he used that same division, just as Thom Tillis did this year in the state, to win contested Senate races.

The issue of social justice for Michael Brown can easily be clouded when the media are a political battleground. Unjust law enforcement activities featured on MSNBC can become law enforcement trying to maintain order from "wild looting protesters" on Fox News.

Spirited actions today can become dispirited political defeats just an election away when we fail to take account of the fact that, despite these incidents, the police are a horrible political target.

Earl Hutchinson, writing in The Huffington Post, tells us that even with evidence that law enforcement does indeed lie and commit crimes, jurors are more willing to believe the testimony of an officer over that of a victim or witness.

In a Pew Research poll concerning Eric Garner and Michael Brown, only about 17 percent of whites believed race was a factor in acquitting the officers. Stanford University even concluded that when faced with direct knowledge of the racial bias in the criminal justice system, participants in their study were more likely to support harsher laws.

How will #BlackLivesMatter make its victims sympathetic when the average American naturally associates blacks with criminality, as a Pennsylvania State University researcher concluded in 2008?

The movement has to expand its messaging or else we will be stuck in an uphill battle, trying to uproot what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic calls a "congenitally racist country."

The movement is stunting itself because it has failed to grow its teeth on economic inequality. Social justice is incomplete without the firm promotion of economic justice, or else societal problems in Ferguson will only repeat themselves. Without gaining ground on this issue, I fear poorer, marginalized classes will just be played against each other using inherent cultural divisions.

I realized I had to speak up because Ferguson, Mo., parallels Appalachia as a story of income inequality. I don't want Ferguson's plight to be played off or ignored as it has been in my own community.

In my mother's home of Clay County, the median income straddles the poverty line at $23,000. Adjust for extra living expenses for a suburb compared to a rural area and you get a similar situation in Ferguson.

In all of St. Louis County, the median income is $75,000. In Ferguson, where 67 percent of residents are African-American, the median income is just $44,000.

With this disparity, it is easy for most Americans to see who gets better education funding and development. Ferguson shares a school board with the predominantly white town of Florissant, resulting in all but one member being white.

How can Ferguson be safe for young African-Americans when their own future isn't encouraged? Americans must understand the inequality prevalent in communities such as Ferguson to comprehend an environment where only three of 57 officers are African-American.

The nation needs a wider story than police brutality; the national media already work hard diluting that point.

What the movement needs to find support for reform is simply localization. We need to make others understand that Brown was a victim of his environment. We have to craft a narrative of inequality before average Americans start casting their own: a black one and a white one.

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