Put simply, there are many Black people on the South Side who have shared or will eventually share the fate of Mike Brown, Renisha Mcbride, and many others. Countless Black Lives have been and will be lost due to the societal understanding that Black lives are worth less than others. There is stark difference between the value placed upon the lives of students and the residents who truly live on the Southside. For example the UCPD (and police, in general), represent a sense of security and safety for many UChicago students. However, to the surrounding community, the UCPD is a private force that has vastly different interests. I have personally been profiled multiple times and many people I have spoken to—primarily Black Students—have felt targeted by our campus police. The dangerous “Black figure” presents itself as a natural enemy to the interests of this institution. Whether it’s the suburbs of St. Louis or a private education institution, this figure represents a threat that we do everything to ignore, detain, and protect ourselves from. Mike Brown reminded us that these supposed threats have names, stories, and value despite our willingness to ignore state-sanctioned violence against black people and accept the narratives that justify their deaths. Black parents and youth in Chicago must constantly confront the ways structural racism has produced inadequate and underfunded schools (when they actually leave them open), fractured communities, lack of access to trauma centers and healthcare, and more. The University of Chicago in both direct and indirect ways perpetuates and contributes to the anti-Blackness that informs these structures.
Through socio-political and counterfeit moral justifications America has become comfortable with its racial reality. Our fascination with a meritocratic individualistic approach to education and opportunity extends to and colors how we interpret the contexts of the Southside. These “Black Figures” are framed as individual actors. It is more convenient to believe that Mike Brown did not live a life that was structured by racism, a violent criminal justice system, or any type of socialization that limited his life potential. This individualistic and ahistorical understanding of agency clouds our ability to see how we, as a society, have contributed to the condition of Black people in America. We relinquish any responsibility we have to Black Americans or more specifically, residents on the South Side because we are convinced that they have the power to live the life they wish to live free from restraint or limitation. While we continue to trust this narrative Black and Brown people are facing death, often literally, in overt and subtle ways.
Ferguson is the mirror that the American public has refused to look into. The harsh images reflect the reality for Black Americans that many never have to confront on a political, and especially personal, basis. Intellectuals often admit that history was bad or that racism is bad, but we are reluctant to interrogate our own complicity in a system that is not dormant, but alive and well in our daily experiences if we are brave enough to take a critical look within ourselves. I say this process is brave because it involves accepting responsibility for the current state of racial affairs, but it pales in comparison to the strength and tenacity it takes to live in this society as a person of color.
The people who create change are the ones who accept the reality they are confronted with, but deny its immutability. We consider ourselves intellectual pioneers, but what use is that power if we refuse to acknowledge the privilege it affords us and how it is built on the exploitation of black bodies. One look into how this very university was formed and continues to exist as an insular space will grant insight into this phenomenon. Ferguson and the South Side of Chicago remind us that the lives of Black citizens are quite different from the lives of people who never have to confront the reality of police violence, racism, and more. Without an understanding of the structures and pressures that Black Americans face Black people will forever remain nameless, inanimate “figures” that are left to their own devices. If we are comfortable with distancing ourselves from the people that we share space with, take resources from, and we owe our current status to, then by all means we should keep up this illusion of innocence. Regardless, we have a connection to Black Americans, whether it be on the South side of Chicago or in Ferguson, and this connection reveals significant information about what type of people and country we are. Hopefully, somewhere in the life of the mind, we can interrogate how our UChicago bubble has been formed, reinforced, and protected to see how it affects the lives of our neighbors, both here and in Ferguson.