Why many White Americans think negatively of the Ferguson Protests

ferguson protestsWhat has happened in Ferguson is merely a symptom of a wider problem in America today. As a result of former officer Darren Wilson being cleared of any potential charges for his slaying of Michael Brown, further protests were sparked in Ferguson and across the country. Through it all, a damaging perception has persisted throughout the nation as peaceful protests turned into riots.

Indeed, the main contention with protesters in Ferguson has been the periods of looting that took place during the chaos. Unfortunately, the actions of these looters are broadly associated with the acts of protests. Those who view protesters as just looters are often white, conservative Americans.

The perception among many white Americans I know on social media is that of sheer disdain for the protesters in Ferguson. They simply feel it necessary to associate peaceful protesters with looters who are just there to take advantage of the situation. In their view, the Ferguson situation is just an excuse for black people to loot and pillage rather than address real grievances with the actions of police and society.

Granted, not all white Americans view Ferguson the same, and it comes in varying degrees. Some posts I see are just outright ugly, while others are more subtle. Many white people are supportive of what the protesters are doing. Yet, there is this theme that comes back again and again: Black people are just violent criminals, or “thugs.” There is almost no consideration whatsoever that the actions of societal discrimination and police brutality are responsible for what has happened.

Looting did take place during the chaos of Ferguson’s protests. Those looters should be ashamed (of course they’re not, they’re looters). But, the looting was in no way associated with the political message and actions of Ferguson’s protesters. Looters loot because they are unashamed opportunists. They come in all colors and take any opportunity available. In addition, they are often associated with organized crime.

White people looted jackets and materials left behind at the scene of the Boston Bombing, while others were volunteering to help the wounded and clean the scene. There have been countless instances of riots being started by white people, often over things as trivial as who won a sports match.

A meme surfacing social media holds a caption that I find funny and true. Basically, white people and black people riot. When black people riot over social injustice, they are branded thugs. When white people riot over losing a hockey match, they are just hooligans. Does anyone see something wrong here?

Based on social media posts from many white friends, it sound as if the protesters in Ferguson were one and the same with looters. No distinction. Why is this?

Many white Americans have a certain negative perception of blacks. This perception has to have a narrative. The Ferguson response is part of that narrative. As I said, not all whites in America feel this way. But, a significant (if not a slight majority) do feel this way and share this narrative. These white people do not think of themselves as racists, because they “know black people” and have “black friends” that they know are “the good ones.” I hear/read this often. Listen to the subtle language.

“He’s a good one.” I hear this a lot from whites in the South. “I know (so and so), and he’s not like the rest of them.” Not like the rest of them. See the narrative now? They aren’t racist, because they manage to find a few black people to get along with (without paying mind to the massive societal discrepancies between whites and blacks).

This narrative assumes most black people in America are bad or suspect in character, while small minorities of them are “the good ones.” Their culture is what is condemned, and seen as what “holds them back.” If black people could just “be like us” it would be okay.

I say again, not all white people in America think this way. I for one do not. However, many do, and far more than I care to see. Racial prejudice is not always overt, but slowly these prejudices simmer under the surface. I remember having some of these myself growing up in the Southern United States. I see them now.

Protesters are not exercising legitimate grievances, because looters have taken advantage of riots because both sets of people were mainly black in Ferguson. White Americans not on the ground observed both looters and protesters as the same.

Black people in Ferguson protest and riot because an unarmed citizen was shot several times to death by a white officer without any proof  of provocation or need to kill (other than the officer’s testimony). White Americans didn’t lump those who looted material after the Boston Bombing in with people who were helping the wounded. So why would we lump protesters and looters in Ferguson as one and the same?

It all boils down to perception, and the narrative that must fuel this perception. Black Americans have real grievances against the white-dominated political/social system that keeps them down rather than lifts them up. There is hope, but many white Americans still find themselves trapped in old-world thinking. It is here that we need to make the biggest change.



  1. I agree with much, if not most, of what you say. And I generally agree with the point you are trying to make.

    But I question the width of the brush you use to paint the perceptions of Ferguson protesters held by “white people”—I nearly laughed out loud at your stereotyping of “whites in the south”—and I seriously question what I perceive to be your difficulty in understanding why many “white people” as well as “people of color” tend to lump “looters” and “protesters” into one group.

    Racism and the narratives that support it are, of course, alive and well and, indeed, are getting even stronger as one of the two major political parties in this country doubles-down in its sometimes covert and sometimes overt race-baiting. Indeed, of the several moral/ethical felonies the Republican Party has committed over the first fifteen years of this century, perhaps none is more despicable and deserving of condemnation than its tacit granting of permission for leaders and followers of its movement to openly engage in racist actions and racist speech—all the while, of course, denying that racism fuels a great deal of the visceral energy that characterizes its base. There is little forgiveness due those who have encouraged the resurrection of old-school racism and its varied forms of articulation.

    I have never imagined such racism to be dead, but I kept thinking that, if we buried it deeply enough, it would, over the span of a couple of generations, begin to founder for lack of oxygen. Republicans have simply leased a front-end loader, dug it up, given it room to breathe and implicitly placed their imprimatur on it.

    The striking unwillingness of virtually any nationally-prominent Republican to speak to the real issues in Ferguson is a cypher for the pathologically symbiotic relationship between the GOP leadership and its base—a symbiotic relationship whose oxygen-bearing currency is often explicit and implicit racism.

    That said, it may not be as easy as one might think for many people—“white people” as well as “people of color”—to make the distinction between protesters responsibly exercising their right to free expression and looters exercising their wish to take advantage of a vulnerable situation.

    To be sure, there are many whose inability to draw that distinction owes to tightly-held stereotypes and prejudices. But I suspect there are also many who associate the two different groups simply because of proximity—the rioting, the burning, the looting and the other destructive acts are accomplished by individuals who were, just a moment ago, part of the same crowd as the righteous protesters. These observers are not “on the ground” and all they see of the events “on the ground” comes to them via television cameras, which are not given to visual distinctions.

    My mother—an 87 year-old white woman who has lived her entire life in South Carolina and dwells in the home in downtown Charleston that has been the center of our family’s life for as long as I can remember—was furious at what she considered the “murder” of Michael Brown and became even more infuriated per the actions of the Ferguson solicitor relative to the grand jury proceedings. However, I noted that she began to distance herself from her thinking/feeling about the whole matter when looting and burning, etc. became part of the equation. One of the most helpful things to her was hearing a young, black preacher from Ferguson being interviewed and saying, “These troublemakers are pouring in from St. Louis and cities around the country. They are not ‘us’ and we do not want them here. They are about one thing. We are about something else.” But, by the time she heard it, she was, as I said, too far down the road to turn around and come back.

    It seems fundamental, to me, that the media make a better effort to help those not “on the ground” understand the dynamics of a situation like Ferguson. It seems fundamental as well that community leaders make explicit those dynamics and do so in such a way that the words of that young preacher become the prevailing narrative. And it seems fundamental that the community itself police its own protests, refusing to allow anyone or any group to co-opt the credibility of its message.

    Those with racist leanings will not be interested in making the distinctions about which you speak. But not everyone who has difficulty making those distinctions is racist and it is those who are, I believe, available to reasoned understanding.

    Your comment that “I hear this a lot from people in the south” really did crack me up. Oh, my! But that is perhaps for another time.

    • I will sum by saying I don’t disagree with anything you commented here. The only thing I will say, is that I do hear white people in the South say this often. I was born and raised in Louisiana, and grew up around white relatives who held (and still hold) bad opinions about “the blacks and hispanics.” Yes, the n word was still used. I already said not all whites are like that, but many are, and many of those are in the South. I am not sure what would be so funny about that statement, but that’s just me.

      Also, I never referenced black Americans as “people of color.” You put that in quotations as if I wrote that. That term is ridiculous. We all are people of color. Last I checked, white is still a color.

      Other than that, I don’t really disagree with your comment here Rusty.

  2. Your point is spot on…Thug is the new red meat term to indicate Minority with animal tendencies. …formally spelt with a N____….Because of White Flight…Suburban Living …Lack of Empathy …and no understanding of the Oppression and lack of Opportunity for the Urban Male Black citizen …And most importantly…the propaganda of the Racist Conservative Right Wing Media stressing …Fear the Other…the not like You …Few Americans have a relationship to the pre 1964 America..which has in reality changed very little since colored restrooms and back of the bus

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