What Would Stan the Man Do? A St. Louisan reflects on Ferguson

| October 9, 2014 | 2 Comments

This is a guest post by Zach Weiss. To submit a guest post to Culture Shock, see our ‘Write for Us’ page.

The story I’m about to tell is local, but its implications are national.  By now, you’d have to be living under a rock if you hadn’t heard about what’s been going on (and is still going on) in Ferguson, Missouri.  I’ve noticed when I talk to people about this issue that many of them have the impression that Ferguson is some small, sleepy, Midwestern town, surrounded by cornfields and the Mighty Mississipp’.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The municipality of Ferguson is located squarely within north St. Louis County.  Its problems are deeply tied into those of St. Louis, creating a sad microcosm of the racial divide that exists in the country as a whole.  As a St. Louisan, what I’m attempting to do in this piece is hard.  Not only will I try to face up to one of the ugliest aspects of life in my hometown, but I’ll try to be critical of the legacy of a man for whom I have nothing but respect, one of the greatest human beings to ever grace the city of St. Louis.

Protesters in Washington, DC | photo credit: ep_jhu via photopin cc

Protesters in Washington, DC | photo credit: ep_jhu via photopin cc

Some people may still deny that the killing of Michael Brown was racially motivated, but there is no denying the racially charged atmosphere in which it took place.  St. Louis has a decades-long history of white flight, during which whites have largely abandoned the city, establishing comfortable homes in the suburbs and often taking opportunity with them.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the “Delmar Divide” where a single road is all that stands between homes with a median value of $73,000 on one side and $335,000 on the other.  Despite the changing racial makeup of many St. Louis neighborhoods, whites have remained in control of everything from city councils to judicial appointments to police departments, leaving African Americans shut out of the political process.  Ferguson, for example, is over 67 percent black, yet only has three black members of its 53-man police department.  Its city council, too, is overwhelmingly white.  Unsurprisingly, racial profiling is an issue.  In 2013, blacks were subject to 562 of the 611 searches, 483 of the 521 arrests, and 4632 of the 5384 stops in Ferguson.  Given that this is the environment in which Michael Brown was killed, it’s a wonder that there hasn’t been a major race riot in the St. Louis area since 1917.

The black community has responded admirably to this crisis, staging protests, holding vigils, and making sure its prominent members, regardless of occupation, are there to show support.  However, the reaction from St. Louis’s whites has been mixed.  This raises a question: what can the rich folks in West County do to respond to the call for justice and ease the racial tensions that underlie everything that has gone on in St. Louis? An attractive answer would be to follow the example of Stanley Frank Musial, former St. Louis Cardinals baseball player and the unofficial patron saint of the city.  A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and undeniably one of the best ballplayers of the last century, Stan the Man is equally well remembered in St. Louis for his kindness, generosity, and quiet decency. Words cannot describe the sorrow felt after his passing in 2013.  It’s worth noting that Musial played during the era of integration in baseball, and as a result he spent time with many black players in an era where racism was much more overt. Around the 8-minute mark of this video, sports broadcaster Bob Costas relates many of the stories black players told about how Stan did everything in his power to make them feel welcome.  Some of them are very moving.  All of them have a common theme.  “Stan was not an activist by nature,” Costas explained, “He was just a thoroughly decent human being.”  Simple, quiet decency. What a small, simple, impactful way to get involved.  What a difference such acts of kindness could make! The quiet decency of a guy like Stan the Man seems like a great way to tackle these issues!  After all, if we just made each other feel welcome, if we were just nice to one another, how could these issues possibly persist?  Quiet decency. That seems like the way to go.  Too bad it’s part of the problem.

Stan Musial's statue outside Busch Stadium | photo credit: KellyK via photopin cc

Stan Musial’s statue outside Busch Stadium | photo credit: KellyK via photopin cc

Even guys like me who can’t help but look up to Musial have to recognize that he did what he did in a very different situation.  The league was being integrated. It was a fact of life.  By treating black ballplayers like human beings, he was just doing what he should have done. He was making sure that the integration process went more smoothly and more quickly, but at that point it was already happening.  But in cities like St. Louis today, it isn’t happening fast enough.  When quiet decency means being nice, but then going back to a mansion while others languish in poverty, it’s nothing more than silence.  And silence can never be the answer.  It can’t be the answer when a man is beaten by police, and then sued for bleeding on their uniforms.  It can’t be the answer when systematic inequality leads to school districts failing to provide children with an education.  Silence can’t be the answer when it’s rude to discuss race, and it can’t be the answer when calling someone out for a racist joke means you can’t tell when it’s all in good fun.  The most dangerous side of quiet decency is that it is quiet.  Its most damning indictment is that in the 72 years Stan Musial called St. Louis home, things have hardly gotten any better.

The story I told was local, but I hope you can see its national implications.  There are too many people who think quiet decency, just being nice to people, is the best way to bridge a very real racial divide. I say that it isn’t.  Ferguson is proof of that. But I will admit that it hasn’t really been implemented on a large scale. When it comes to racial issues, too many people are quiet, and too few of us are decent.

Zach Weiss was born in Florissant, Missouri, and before coming to BU had lived in St. Louis County his whole life. He is a senior in CAS studying Philosophy and Spanish.  Although he enjoys guest posting, he spends most of his time serving as Community Service Chair for Phi Iota Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

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Category: featured, Social Activism, Sports

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