By John L. Jackson Jr.

and Ezekiel Dixon-Román

Academics like to characterize even the most ghastly social events as "teachable moments," opportunities for society to learn from its mistakes in an ongoing quest "to form a more perfect union." No matter how horrific or heartbreaking, traumatic or socially disruptive, tragedies can have educative value. Learning from those mistakes is supposed to be a small bit of consolation, a silver lining spun, optimistically, out of the most disturbing edges of our nation's social fabric. But one thing seemed undeniably clear last week. It doesn't look like we are ready to learn much from what's going on in Ferguson, except how to repeat our past racial blunders even more pathetically.

On one side, we have those would-be rioters who have been poised to burn down their own sections of the Missouri landscape like some Hollywood re-enactment of the erstwhile race-riots that have pockmarked every previous decade of our republic. And it is easy enough to see why folks who feel wronged by a system often trying to fight fire with fire, a proclivity that was hardly mitigated by the surreal soliloquy offered up to justify the grand jury's decision. The second of two wrongs may not be right, but it can sure feel cathartic, a paroxysm of social activity that expresses public discontent with a maladaptive system. If you can't trust your own sociocultural institutions to protect you, the argument goes, then why not try to topple those institutions altogether? (That is the same fundamental logic behind the tea party's anti-government hysterics.)

And this is all so much more complicated when the conflict pivots on issues of racism and discrimination.

Racism is indifferent to rational arguments and empirical social scientific evidence. That's because we harbor our deepest racial investments in our hearts and souls, not just our heads. You can't simply convince all bigots to recant their bigotry with colorful MRIs of brain activity showing them how their own racist instincts get primed in some neuro-psychologist's laboratory.

Racism is a part of American culture, something that continues to torment us because we can't simply opt out of it. We don't choose racism; we inherit its inescapable history of violence, paranoia, and ethical inconsistency.

Some of us are slowly beginning to realize that it doesn't matter if "race" is a scientific fact or a political fiction, nature or nurture. That's because, either way, we can use it to justify the same kinds of discriminatory social policies related to housing, education, employment, incarceration, neighborhood policing, and everything else.

When race is considered biologically real, we get claims that justify cruelty and discrimination with invocations of Mother Nature and God's divine plan. If race is deemed a merely cultural concoction, then we simply impugn the pathological cultural repertoire of certain groups, refusing to help them until they help themselves by no longer bequeathing a "culture of poverty" to younger members of their community. In both arguments, future possibilities for the racially marginalized are preordained.

One of the biggest things we refuse to learn is that race is just one particularly powerful way to prop up a partition between "us" and "them." Economist Glenn Loury once offered up an eloquent distillation of America's most basic racial delusion: imagining some of our country's collective problems as only "their" problems. "Chances are that those black youngsters shot by police were probably just up to no good."

Race is a way to justify taking chances with other people's life-chances.

The one thing that Ferguson can't teach us that we need to learn, and desperately, is true empathy, and that's mostly because our toxic racist ideologies have made us unteachable, short-circuiting our ability to mobilize empathy across racial lines.

And then there is the added fact that empathy alone isn't nearly enough, especially because it takes a long time to develop, which means its cultivation takes too long to deal with urgent social problems in the here and now. If we hope to really address the precarious lives of America's most vulnerable citizens the key move, then, is the next one: our ability and willingness to translate such humane and holistic connectedness into social policies imbued with an empathic ethos, policies that realize just how much "fairness" and "equality," terms we bandy about far too easily, are constituted through a complicated calculus of opportunities, outcomes, and common goals. We refuse to learn from Ferguson, ultimately, because we refuse to even try. We've convinced ourselves that there is something called "their problem," which is our most profound mistake of all.

John L. Jackson Jr. is dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania jjackson@sp2.upenn.edu

Ezekiel Dixon-Román is a professor of Social Policy in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania