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Ferguson Needs To Be Model For Systemic Change, Professor Says


Let's continue the conversation about how a city like Ferguson and its police force can learn from what happened there. As we heard, a judge, the city manager and the police chief all stepped down this week. We asked Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, if this was a solid first step.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: It's not only a solid first step, it is a necessary first step. If I were a historian looking back on these events 50 years from now, I would tell this moment as the arc of a story of justice achieved in removing agents of oppression - not sufficient, but absolutely necessary.

GREENE: I gather beyond, you know, changing people in these jobs, you see some more systemic problems that need to be taken care of as well.

MUHAMMAD: That's correct. And I think it's not just about individuals. And I think that's where this conversation has been for much of the last century. It's been about cleaning house in a particular department, identifying rotten apples and saying that now that we've removed those individuals, everything's going to be OK. So Ferguson should become a model department for systemic change with the kinds of value statements that the new leadership will articulate and enforce.

GREENE: Can you just help us understand what that systemic change is that you feel has to happen in Ferguson and hasn't happened when we've hit situations like this in the past?

MUHAMMAD: Well, we might start with what does policing look like in middle-class, white, suburban communities? People are not presumptively criminal because they happen to, as one NYPD officer described, fit the description of a black male, 14 to 21, or that in most of these encounters, the context of daily abuse and microaggressions, where people are disrespected just by how they're spoken to, has to change. So there are some basic things about decency that we should look for and expect that most white Americans take for granted in their own communities.

GREENE: But what you're describing sounds like racism, or as some have put it when we've had conversations about these incidents recently, if not racism, then it is a fear based on someone's race. I mean, a fear among police officers of young black men. But is that we're talking about here? I mean, just that there can't be racism in police departments. Is that the problem?

MUHAMMAD: Well, it is a problem. But it is too amorphous a statement to tell us what to do about it. So the reason I use the example of the kind of everyday policing that happens outside of working-class and poor black communities is just because people know what that looks like. It's a place to start the conversation. If I just say we have to end racism and policing, it's, like, OK, I'm not racist in the first place. And this idea of implicit bias works to some degree, but it also implicates everybody, including black people.

GREENE: And does a focus solely on race take away from efforts like you're describing?

MUHAMMAD: No. It doesn't take away from it because it's a hard issue to wrestle with. And if we don't wrestle with it, it is hard to get past it. My only concern about the focus on race is if we make it about individuals because racism is built into the criminal justice system. It was baked in from the beginning of the experience of 90 percent of the African-American population at the end of slavery. If we don't come to terms with that, then we're going to have a hard time getting past the past.

GREENE: The kind of model that you're describing for change - can it apply everywhere, or is Ferguson not so representative of the entire country?

MUHAMMAD: Well, the truth is that no one knows exactly how representative Ferguson is and the specifics that the Department of Justice identified in the recent report. But we should assume at this point that Ferguson is not an outlier because where we see instances of community outrage to the shooting of unarmed African-Americans - we have to assume at this point that the community response is not simply a response to the act, but is a response to the broken relationship between the police and the community. To the extent that we see this tremendous outpouring of protest, we should use the DOJ report as an indicator of a much deeper problem that likely exists across communities in the United States.

GREENE: Professor Muhammad, thanks very much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you very much, David, for having me.

GREENE: That's Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of "The Condemnation Of Blackness: Race, Crime, And The Making Of Modern Urban America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.