A young black teen is dead and no one will be held accountable. That is what the grand jury told the nation in the case of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson. Some were shocked by the outcome, but those more jaded with the ways of our legal system were not surprised.
The outrage however is palpable. I, too, am outraged. Not because I am fully convinced that Darren Wilson is a guilty racist, but because the decision was to determine whether the case would even be heard in trial. It is one thing for Darren Wilson to be found not guilty, it is an entirely different matter to determine that it is not worth going to trial at all. In other words, the grand jury has effectively silenced what voice Michael Brown had left. It was the job of the prosecutor to speak for the dead teen. But now his voice and story will remain unheard in the courts.
So yes, I am outraged. This may seem unusual for a historian to say. We are often attributed with dispassionate objectivity, but that is not true at all. Historians are moved by injustice. This is why the historian’s role in the Michael Brown and Ferguson situation is essential. Historians do not only deal with the past, but rather draw upon the past to investigate the assumptions of the present. We are uniquely positioned to talk about present societal matters specifically because we deal with change over time and understand the context which events fall into.
To the historian, the situation in Ferguson is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a larger history of oppression, inequality, and institutionalized racism. It is up to historians to step up and talk about these wider issues and to get the discussion going. How do the protests represent the outpouring of frustration against an unequal system? How has the hegemonic structures that perpetuate that inequality continue to remain tenacious? What are the social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to a situation where a black teenager can be killed and his killer will not even face trial? Why is it unusual for a grand jury not to indict (especially since out of the 162,000 cases in 2010 only 11 declined to indict)? Why is it so much harder to indict police officers? What does this tell us about the way power is structured in our country?
Historians who work on issues of oppression, colonialism, race, segregation, and political violence can offer us a unique perspective into what is going on. Historians can help us understand the struggle and the outrage. This is the role of the historian and one we should not shy away from.
This is an important moment in American history.