I watched with deep sorrow and despair as the events unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., over the last couple of weeks in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown. This episode has raised a firestorm of legal and racial issues, which brings with it both rational and inflammatory commentary and behavior from those on differing sides of this tragic American saga.
The backdrop of Michael Brown’s death and the incidents afterward are linked to one of the most incendiary topics in American History: race relations. While there have been countless debates and conversations on this topic, I believe we’ve never had a truly honest and constructive discussion.
If we had such a discussion, America would be forced to deal with its shameful past on this subject. It would also force communities of color to look internally at the role we have played in exacerbating this ongoing dilemma. Shying away from this difficult conversation will lead only to more incidents like Ferguson and its painful aftermath.
While some pundits wish to spin the narrative that we live in a post-racial America, I beg to differ: We still have a race problem in our country.
For example, the disparity between black men and women who go to prison, compared to whites, especially in the area of drug charges, is staggering, illustrating our unequal justice system at work.
United States Sen. Rand Paul underscored this very point in his recent article for Time Magazine, noting, "Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."
This was one of the reasons that so many of us recently stood together to advance meaningful reform of New Jersey’s bail system. This is also why I continue to support re-entry policies that seek to curtail recidivism rates, so that those previously incarcerated have a chance at being productive citizens.
Despite the progress we have made, men and women of color still remain victims of the inequality and injustice that permeate our society. Having faced those experiences firsthand, I know the demeaning and humiliating feeling of being judged solely by the color of one's skin.
But not all of the ills that black Americans face are a result of societal oppression. Our leaders in the black community must hold our community accountable for the self-inflicted wounds that we perpetrate.
No better example is the rioting and looting that ensued in Ferguson, Mo., recently, which does nothing to support or empower our communities. In fact, with every broken window, we are depleting our local resources and degrading our message for change.
Furthermore, the lawlessness is a distraction and gives the opportunity to those who harbor prejudice to say, “See, I told you ... . Look at what they are doing … . There they go again.” These individuals do not see the injury or insult that men and women of color have suffered throughout our history, nor do they care. They only judge us by the headlines they read.
If we intend to reach a true post-racial society, then we must look inward, as well. The statistics of black-on-black crime are shameful; this genocide is destroying our communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011, homicides claimed 40 percent of black lives between 15-34 years of age. We should be just as outraged and inflamed by the staggering murder rate among blacks by blacks as we are by the incidents in Ferguson.
We also must acknowledge the growing crisis of fatherlessness and its impact on our community. Numerous research studies point to this as a reliable predictor of more teen pregnancy, greater levels of poverty, criminal behavior and higher levels of substance abuse than in families where fathers are active.
So how do we begin to fix this? Simple question. Complex answer. I can’t offer a magic formula, but I can offer one direct, unequivocal and practical answer that we must adopt: Exercising our right to vote.
This is how we can direct resources and opportunity in our country. This is how we can ensure that our political leaders are a true microcosm of the people they serve. And, this is how we — black/brown/white, male/female, rich or poor — can combat the feelings of “us versus them.”
This is the path I have chosen in my attempt to make a difference: engaging the political process as an avenue for change. In America, power comes from the ballot and not the bullet. Until we, as an electorate, become active, voting participants in our democracy, the people making the decisions have no incentive to listen.
Let's take this moment in history to choose ballots over bullets. That’s my take. What’s yours?