The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 9, 2016

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and why race matters for policy research

February 9, 2016

In August 2014, Michael Brown, a black teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Three months later, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, leading to days of intense unrest in the greater St. Louis area and throughout the country.

Reporters and researchers responded to the protests by pointing out that Ferguson was (and still is) a majority black suburb of St. Louis, one of the more segregated cities in the United States. Nearly every neighborhood there has suffered from high poverty rates. And the police force is overwhelmingly white in a city that is majority black.

Research shows us that places like Ferguson are not uncommon. The majority of black children in urban areas grow up similarly to Brown: raised by unwed parents and attending underperforming schools. These circumstances make upward mobility challenging for anyone, but young black men in particular seem to struggle. Complicating this already bleak picture, young black men are vastly overrepresented among those who are arrested and imprisoned and among those who are shot and killed.

Knowing context does not reduce the tragedy of a life lost too soon. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of Brown's death, many people responded by passionately and assuredly arguing whether he died because he was black—not by disagreeing politely over potential policy solutions. I do not say that to minimize the importance of that work. On the contrary, research on inequality and mobility provides the necessary evidence base to inform effective policy.

Despite that, we will never be able to definitively prove that Brown died because of his race or that many of the racial inequalities we study and observe are caused by race. We have become quite skilled at isolating the correlates—education, poverty, employment, incarceration, family structure—but these factors do not explain away the myriad ways in which race continues to shape people's lives and life chances.  We should not shy away from discussing a subject simply because we do not fully comprehend it or because it makes us uncomfortable. Race still matters and we need to talk about it, even if we cannot precisely measure or articulate how it matters.

Research is a public good and we have a responsibility to help people better understand the world around them, hopefully improving their lives as a result. And it has shown us that racial minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos, tend to be grossly underrepresented in who moves up and ahead in the United States, seemingly separated from the ladders of opportunity. We know that quality schools, safe stable neighborhoods with good jobs, accessible healthcare, and transferrable wealth can help close the gaps. However, we cannot fully put an end to unequal opportunities until we better understand and address how race shapes those factors.

As a new affiliated scholar and contributor to the Inequality and Mobility initiative, I plan to discuss the prevailing role of race in structuring paths to opportunity and in shaping public discourse.  I hope to use this space to talk not just about research findings and policy implications, but to apply them to our current political and social context.

In this Nov. 26, 2014 photo, protesters kneel down with their hands up in front of Los Angeles police officers in downtown Los Angeles. ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ has become a rallying cry despite questions whether Michael Brown’s hands were raised in surrender before being fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP

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