How historians put Ferguson in contextHistorians in the News
“The conduct of individual policemen received much adverse criticism from the Negroes. This was to be expected in the circumstances, but disregarding the general prejudices of which white officers were accused, certain cases of discrimination, abuse, brutality, indifference and neglect on the part of individuals are deserving of examination.”
Dated racial language aside, if the above paragraph – ripped from a 1922 commission’s report on the Chicago Race Riot three years earlier – sounds eerily familiar, it should. That’s what a panel of historians said here Monday during a session called “Understanding Ferguson: Race, Power, Protest and the Past” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. (There are other parallels: As recent anti-police protests in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere stemmed from the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police officers, the 1919 Chicago riot began after a young black man waded into an unofficially segregated beach and drowned after being hit with rocks by white bathers; a white police officer was alleged to have refused to arrest someone for the crime.)
“Ferguson brings us here but it’s a metaphor for a long, ongoing history” of discriminatory police practices, said Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who chaired the panel. Despite the “keen and prophetic” recommendations about policing and race included in 1922’s “Negro in Chicago” report and others like it since, he said, a lack of political will has left them “gathering dust” while other, insidious narratives about the black community and crime dominate.
So although historians may be more comfortable working with the past than commenting on contemporary events, speakers said, they’ve got an obligation to help students and society at large understand the context from which the recent protests emerged...
Historians also need to rail against the deleterious “myth” of post-racialism to help promote progress, speakers said.
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