Thursday, March 5, 2015

On Bad Apples, Leo DiCaprio and Ferguson

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? ... An idea.
- Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception
N*****, I can find something to lock you up on
- A Ferguson police officer, United States Justice Department's report on Ferguson

In America, we love bad apples. Not the bad apples themselves, but the idea of them. The idea goes something like this: Problems are caused by bad people. When you remove the bad people, the problem goes away. After all, how does every action movie end? With the Good Guy shooting the Bad Guy — or, if you prefer, flinging him off a skyscraper. After that, all the problems are solved. There are no messes to clean up. John McClane kisses Holly and rides off into the night with Argyle cracking wise.

You see this idea in practically every corner of our life. Part of the reason Americans were rallied so easily to an expensive, unnecessary and horrific war in Iraq was because of the idea of the Bad Guy. Saddam Hussein was Hans Gruber, we told ourselves; once we fling him off a skyscraper, we'll ride off in a limo, and someone else will clean up all that broken glass and account for all those broken lives. As it turned out, it wasn't that simple. It never is.

The myth of the bad apple is also the reason our War on Drugs has been an utter failure. We told ourselves everyone connected to the drug trade, no matter how tangential, was a Bad Guy. You can't morally justify a 55-year prison sentence for a non-violent drug deal otherwise. Now it's years later and we've locked up a dizzying number of people for sentences that seem like typos, and drug use has stayed largely flat. It turns out the problem of drug abuse couldn't be solved by someone with a white hat riding into the small town and shooting up the guys with the black hats.

Last night, I watched the press conference the town of Ferguson held after the release of a report showing shocking, systemic abuse of African-Americans by its police force and justice system. In what I assume was a sardonic joke, the mayor announced that three employees had been placed on leave and the police force had completed diversity training.

You see what happened there? He got rid of the bad apples.

Ferguson isn't Ferguson because there are a few bad apples, a few racist officials. Ferguson is Ferguson because of an idea, the same idea that proved so hard to kill that Reconstruction failed: that black lives are worth less than white lives.

In the line I quote from Inception at the top of this post, Leonardo DiCaprio points out that an idea can prove incredibly hard to kill. Ferguson proves that, once you build a system around an idea, it hardly matters if you swap out a few pieces here and there: the machine has a way of chugging and churning along all on its own. After the Civil War, states passed Black Codes, which kept African-American in near-slavery. The idea they were intended to protect was that black people were inferior. The codes are gone, but the idea isn't; the tools to protect it have merely become more camouflaged. A few gears have been swapped, but the machine rolls on.

I'm not going to end this post with any proposals about how to fix things. I'll leave that to smarter people, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. It seems, frankly, like some of the tools that have worked in the past — such as the Voting Rights Act and, you know, relatively equal access to our democracy —  have been gleefully slashed by the Supreme Court.

But I will say that we need to stop thinking that getting rid of a few bad apples will solve things.

After all, as the rest of the saying goes, they've already spoiled the barrel. 

PS: Amazing how a few racist e-mails were specifically about the Obamas. Why, it's almost as if some of the unprecedented opposition to them is actually motivated by race.