#Ferguson: Some Thoughts

by Robert Schenkkan

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for #Ferguson: Some Thoughts

(This post was originally shared  by Robert Schenkkan on his Facebook page, and is reprinted here as part of Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Diversity & Inclusion salon with his permission.)

It has taken me some time to frame a response, delayed by my emotions and the fear that whatever I say runs the risk of trivializing events but I think it important to begin. That the results of the Grand Jury are absurd needs no more detail here. The game was carefully and skillfully rigged the way these things are. The real question is what to do about all this? I think we begin with…

Acknowledgement. Two acknowledgements, actually. The first is that despite all the progress we have made over the last 200 years (and we have made progress) we live in a racist society. Not a society full of racists (although they exist to be sure) but one in which racism is so fully ingrained in our daily interactions and in our institutions as to almost be invisible. Or almost invisible to white people. For people of color this is hardly the case. What the recent murders in Ferguson, Ohio and Sanford, Florida and elsewhere have done is pull back the curtain. The sudden death of Michael Brown is shocking. But no less shocking is the ongoing holocaust of incarceration of hundreds of thousands of young men of color, the effect of which will be to effectively deny them their rights for the rest of their lives – a new Jim Crow. No less shocking is the failure of public education in broad swathes of country, the effect of which will be to deny those children a genuinely equal opportunity. The second acknowledgement is more personal. As a white male I have to recognize that my group is the one most responsible for this situation, or as Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” By virtue of my gender and my race I enjoy privileges not immediately available to the rest of my community. There is no point denying this, or in feeling guilty about it, the question is, what should I do with this power?

Action. As an artist I have a unique opportunity to reflect upon and express a more critical analysis of contemporary society in ways in which it is more likely to find resonance. The politics of race and class have always found a place in my work but none of us should compartmentalize our response to this crisis just in our work. It needs a deeper lodging. The work to build a more equitable and just society should be manifest in every part of our lives. We need to look at all the various groups and institutions we belong to and ask ourselves two questions. Does this group truly reflect America in all its glorious diversity? And does this group support the status quo in terms of class and race and gender, or does it actively seek to re-shape it? If the answer is no, then it is up to us to begin those conversations and make that change happen. This will certainly require that I cede some of my privilege, or even give up my place at the table. So be it. That’s the personal part but there is also a social obligation. We must engage in Politics. Nobody gives up political power willingly, you have to take it. The strategy to achieving that is not glorious or especially complicated but it is hard work. You must make a compelling narrative of your social/political philosophy and convince people in the market place of ideas that yours is a better way. And then having done so, having swayed citizens to your cause, you must get out your vote. The recent mid-terms were a disaster for progressives because we made such a dismal case for our own success. In many cases, Democrats ran away from their own record which was, in most regards, quite good. You have to own who you are and what you believe in – if you don’t, why should anybody else? And then you have to get out your vote. The average percentage of registered voters who bothered to vote in the midterms was 30%. When your turnout is that poor, reactionary forces punch harder than their weight. The solution is to register voters, block by block, precinct by precinct, state by state, and then get them to the polls.

There is a reason conservatives try to make it difficult to vote – they fear the consequences of an aroused electorate. The mistake liberals make is to only focus on the vote every four years. The focus must be every year. Every. Year. And every election, from city council to President. The problem with Ferguson did not start on that one bloodied street; that is the all too inevitable consequence of a complex political system which routinely oppresses minorities and creates a climate of fear. Change is not easy and it will be hard fought every step of the way but it is doable. It must be done.


Robert Schenkkan HeadshotRobert Schenkkan is a Pulitzer Prize winning, TONY@ Award winning, two-time Emmy nominated writer of Theater, Film, and Television. Robert is the author of The Kentucky Cycle, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – the first play in the history of the Pulitzer to win before its NY premier. The Kentucky Cycle was nominated for the TONY@, Drama Desk, Drama Critics, and Drama League Awards and won the PEN West Award and LA Drama Critics Circle Award. His most recent play, All The Way, was commissioned by the American Revolutions Project, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, and won the Drama League Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the TONY@ Award for Best Play. Robert is currently writing at work (book/lyrics) on a rock musical, The Twelve, with composer/lyricist, Neil Berg which will have its World Premiere at the Denver Theater Center in March, 2015. More detail available at his website: www.robertschenkkan.com

  • John Rothgeb

    Thank you Robert. Indeed, “It needs a deeper lodging. The work to build a more equitable and just society should be manifest in every part of our lives.” I recognize my “white male privilege” and embrace it because I want everyone regardless of race, gender, class or sexual orientation to have exactly the same privileges that I have had and I just don’t accept that should they have them all that I would be deprived of anything. On the contrary, I truly think I would be far richer for it.

    I honestly believe deep down in my heart that the politics of equality and justice, as played out in our society over race, gender, class and sexual orientation, are not a zero sum game as those who would perpetuate the status quo seem to want everyone to believe. Giving equality, justice and opportunity to those who formerly did not have it and could not secure it for themselves does not take it away from anyone who has those, but instead, makes us all richer both in spirit and in body (read economics). The populist experiment started by FDR during the Great Depression and played out over WWII and the post war years which developed a mighty (mostly white and male) middle class and made the U.S.A. the mightiest and richest (not only economically) nation on earth demonstrated that. It unleashed the endeavors and innovations of millions of Americans who would have languished mostly in poverty otherwise to create a great nation. I submit that if we endeavor to become the nation with the greatest equality, justice and opportunity for all by abolishing the barriers of gender, race and class we Americans can have another great surge forward among the nations of the world and truly show the way to a better future for all mankind.