Seeing Systems and Getting to the Roots – Lessons from Ferguson

In the stream of tragedies and controversies that come through the media, certain stories seem to “get to me” and I have to follow them further. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the response on the streets, and the response to the response on the streets, was one of those stories. The national and on-line conversation has been both insightful and infuriating.

The infuriating aspect is when the coverage stays at the level of the story of protests and looting and crackdowns. I want to know what happened that got people this fed up to march in the streets, what is the larger story? For those working to create a future different than the past, who want to get beyond band aids and recurring patterns, we need to get at the roots of these tragedies and conflicts. There are two levels that need to be looked at:

  • The systems that affect the behavior of people within them, e.g., what are the historical dynamics that got us to where we are today? What within the larger systems affects the options, decisions and actions people take?
  • The mindsets and underlying beliefs/values (conscious or unconscious) that drive the behavior, opinions, and decisions of people in those systems.

It gets more complicated when you appreciate that the systems we live and work in today are an inheritance from previous generations. Mindsets of those before us drove decisions that created systems and impacts that can still be playing out. For example, racist mindset that in the 1950’s drove policies to deny mortgages to inner city mixed race neighborhoods, which led to “white flight” and is a root cause of the segregation and many subsequent effects we see today. (I recommend this radio program House Rules on This American Life, which explores the in-depth story of how this all evolved.)

Understanding this broader perspective takes exploration, a societal/psychological archeological dig you might say. It takes an orientation of “inquiring empathy” – what is it like to walk in your shoes? It requires us to broaden our lens, to see history, e.g., what are the traumas and injustices that occurred over generations and how might those be playing out here? And it takes a willingness, personally, to be aware of our own blinders/blind spots – to be open to understanding the world from another perspective. This is not an exercise in coming up with one silver bullet “fix” to a problem or an action plan to drive measurable outcomes.

The coverage and responses to the Ferguson story offer powerful ways to see how the dynamics of systems and history play out, how our mindsets and social networks affect what we see, and the limits of one perspective. I offer here some of the stories, reporting, perspectives, and analysis that illustrate the kind of empathic systemic view that is so critical to cultivate in these times:

  • When Whites Don’t Get It – Part 1 & 2 – Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times original column and second column of his response to critics, challenge the notion that we can focus on the individual and their character and ignore the larger system they live within and the impacts of generations of injustice, prejudice, and trauma
  • Things to Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By Police – This brilliant article by Mia McKenzie points out the ways the story of a murdered black person quickly shifts over to issues such as riots, looting, what celebraties have to say about it, etc. It challenges us to see the real story beyond the media frames. 
  • How Municipalities in St. Louis Profit from Poverty -This in-depth article by Radley Balko in the Washington Post offers a shocking sense of how the systems of local government around St. Louis use traffic violations to escalate minor infractions into incarceration. When you read this, you can understand the extent of frustration and injustice the people of Ferguson were feeling.   
  • Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson – This article in The Atlantic explores how our perspectives of the events are shaped by who we talk to. Research shows the social networks of white Americans are 91 percent white. The author writes “If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.”
  • Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person – This piece by Gina Crosley-Corcoran in the Huffington Post helps people understand white privelege and the ways race and class play out that people may be blind to.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 × one =