The racial fire next time may consume us all
(NOTE: When you talk about racial issues, you often have to speak in generalities. There are plenty of whites protesting, and plenty that are understanding and sympathetic on these issues. If the shoe doesn’t fit, then don’t wear it.)
When I heard no charges were to be filed against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who killed an unarmed Michael Brown in August, I wasn’t surprised at all.
Some willingly take Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony as gospel and see the matter as settled. Others think the process was a sham. We’re never going to know what happened on that street. Even the evidence dump doesn’t tell the whole story because A) Michael Brown isn’t here to give his side and B) the evidence and testimony hasn’t been tested at trial and it will never be. It’s the surrounding racial conversation that concerns me.
It’s a conversation that follows predictable ground with both sides not hearing each other. A HuffPost/YouGov poll on Monday found that 74 percent of blacks felt the Michael Brown shooting was part of a broader pattern with only 31 percent of whites agreeing. That comes from a nation that doesn’t know its history and still self-segregates. The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute caused a stir earlier this year with research that showed most whites have few nonwhite friends. Blacks, on average, had eight times as many white friends as whites have black friends. By and large, we live in different neighborhoods and communities and view the world through different lenses.
To make matters worse, we all tend to read or listen to news and sources that reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge them.
But our collective life experiences color the world. Think of Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. To the wealthy, it’s the story of a criminal. To the poor, it’s the story of a hero. Both sides are looking at the same act and reaching different conclusions based on their experience and status in life.
We keep having these racial earthquakes whether it’s Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, Henry Louis Gates,Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown because we have an empathy deficit based on the fact that we have an integration deficit. We live in a nation built on racial oppression, and when the federal courts and legislatures dismantled Jim Crow segregation laws that kept blacks economically impoverished and second class citizens, there wasn’t the equivalent dismantling of stereotypes and attitudes. These attitudes and resentment merely sank out of public view. (The same thing is happening right now with the LGBT community and marriage equality. The laws are changing but hostile or ignorant attitudes have merely been suppressed, not eliminated.)
There’s a narrative out there in the ether about black people that many people buy into. It goes something like this: They’re on welfare and food stamps and get free health care from Obamacare. They’re part of Romney’s 47 percent that won’t take responsibility for their lives. They’re violent, dangerous criminals. And any time they get into trouble, they play the race card. This is the sentiment that’s made clear through too many Republican politicians, conservative radio and the ignorant.
You can see this attitude percolating on social media following the rioting in Ferguson. When mostly white people riot after sporting events like the rioting after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last month or the spring break riots in Santa Barbara, you don’t see the same level of anger and outrage. No one is calling rioting white kids “thugs.”
The fact is the overwhelming majority of protestors went home after the No True Bill was read. The media reports made that clear. The majority of people didn’t set police cars on fire, loot or burn buildings. But like the fact that most black people aren’t on welfare, are not criminals nor are they thugs, the reality doesn’t seem to matter. With this mindset, real life stereotypes, and they do exist, tend to taint the entire race.
The only way to know that what you’re seeing represents a minority within a minority is to broaden your horizons.
Since most whites don’t have black friends, they never hear firsthand accounts of what too many black people experience with law enforcement and the justice system. If you’re white, think back to how you felt watching the O.J. Simpson verdict. Now imagine that happened in nearly every high profile case. How would you feel about the system?
So when blacks hear about a young black man gunned down by police, our first inclination is not to expect justice. With that history and our experience, we sometimes overreact and view every exoneration of a white cop as an injustice. That’s not fair either.
And let me say that if Michael Brown had paid for those cigars, then it’s likely he’d still be with us. Look, I’ve sat in a car with two friends with my hands up as a hostile CHP officer tried to goad the driver into making a wrong move. I’ve feared for my life from the police. I’ve had 13 interactions with law enforcement and have never been arrested. I’ve had police demand ID and tell me to get out of town.
My point is it’s not that difficult for an innocent young black man to get stopped by police. And if that’s the case, why would you do anything to up the chance of being stopped? I know some folks are saying that it doesn’t matter, that Brown didn’t deserve to be killed for stealing cigars. Of course not, but to have credibility on this issue we have to hold everyone accountable. And that brother was wrong when he took those cigars and wrong when he threatened the storeowner.
But I can’t go any further than that because I don’t know what happened at that police car and neither do you.
In general, white folks are scared of black people. “White flight” is a thing because it’s real. As neighborhoods and schools become darker, whites tend to move out to the suburbs. This goes back to those prevailing attitudes about blacks that I mentioned earlier. Whites fear crime, deteriorating property values and lax educational standards, so they move away. So it’s not surprising to me that when they see a video of a large black man, Michael Brown, threatening a store owner, they find it far easier to relate to Darren Wilson. White friends who are to my left politically have told me that the video of Brown frightened them.
My condolences to Michael Brown’s family but this case is bigger than what happened in Ferguson. Our attitudes are important if we expect to live peacefully in a diverse nation rather than one that implodes based on racial animus.
And that’s not limited to black and white. Latinos are the largest minority in the U.S. and are growing faster than any other. The Asian population is exploding, too. By 2040, whites will be a minority in America.
Maybe when there are so many black, brown and yellow people in everyone’s friends and families, we’ll understand each other better and coexist.
Or, this most heavily armed nation in the history of the planet could devolve into horrific violence like we’ve seen in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and other places. We’re not immune. That’s why we have to face this problem like our lives depend on it.
Because maybe they do.