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Ferguson Commission Report Highlights Racial Inequality In St. Louis Region

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Ferguson Commission Report Highlights Racial Inequality In St. Louis Region

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Ferguson Commission Report Highlights Racial Inequality In St. Louis Region

Ferguson Commission Report Highlights Racial Inequality In St. Louis Region

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, on its report examining the racial and economic gaps in the St. Louis region and offering policy recommendations.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Out today - recommendations from the Ferguson Commission. The independent panel created after the death of Michael Brown calls for new use-of-force policies for police, new guidelines for when court should issue arrest warrants and more - 189 recommendations in all, stretching from Missouri law enforcement and the justice system to housing, health, education and income. And high up in the report is this plain statement. We have not moved beyond race. The Rev. Starsky Wilson is co-chair of the commission. I asked him about the decision to use such blunt language.

STARSKY WILSON: We needed to make the distinction that it's about race because race is so uncomfortable for people. We default to conversations about socioeconomic status. We color the conversation in wonky policy language. We talk about geographic differences as if those geographic differences aren't impacted by racial perceptions themselves. So we wanted to state it plainly so that we might deal with it and go through it rather than seeking to go around it.

CORNISH: Why did it make sense to have such a wide scope? I mean, when you're talking about hunger and economic inequality, how do those things tie back to the unrest in Ferguson or even the incident that led to it?

WILSON: Ultimately, we're reminded by the tragic loss of Michael Brown that education is really connected, unfortunately. The place where Michael was shot is a dividing line, if you will, between unaccredited and accredited school districts. He had graduated, himself, from an unaccredited school district, was headed off to begin a vocational school. We also see that - in that area, we've seen an increase of poverty in people who live in St. Louis suburbs of 53 percent between 2000 and 2013.

So as we think about all of this, really, August 9 provides a prism by which we look at all of these kinds of issues. And I think the only appropriate response was to say, yes, police and community relations first, but we must address these broader issues that intersect at the places of West Florissant and Canfield where Michael was shot.

CORNISH: Let's turn to some of the specific calls to action that are made in the report. One issue, per example, would be dealing with school suspensions.

WILSON: Yeah.

CORNISH: And you point out racial disparities there - 14 percent of black elementary students suspended in a given school year as compared with less than 2 percent of white students. How does this come into play in a post-Ferguson report? For people who think this issue started out about, maybe, police brutality, how did you end up talking about school suspensions?

WILSON: This report seeks to make the connections to wider public policy conversations, including the conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline. This is ultimately driven by perceptions, implicit bias and how these things impact how students are treated in school and, quite frankly, how they're treated by police.

CORNISH: But to a young person who may have been in the streets after the killing of Michael Brown, how does this help their concerns?

WILSON: I think these kinds of things are things that are raised by those young people - talking about the need for competency for all teachers and everyone who's in a school building, including police who're in the school buildings, because it impacts whether they are sending students out of school on suspension, which ultimately leads to tracking them. And the perception of our police is the same as many teachers who see young black men, particularly, as older than they actually are, as more dangerous than they present. And then they treat them differently with their use of consequences. So in the classroom, it's out-of-school suspensions, and on the street, it's extrajudicial killings.

CORNISH: So to you, this gets back to, maybe, the language that Darren Wilson used in talking about Michael Brown.

WILSON: It absolutely does. When you look at the testimony, you hear Darren Wilson speaking about Michael Brown as a monster, the considerations of his body as a weapon. So his pure physicality is perceived as a threat, and that has policy implications, ultimately. It had it on August 9 in the street on Canfield, and it has it in classrooms all over the nation.

CORNISH: Rev. Starsky Wilson - he's co-chair of the state of Missouri's Ferguson Commission. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: Thank you very much for having me.

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