What does Ferguson tell us about race relations in America?

Once again we as Americans seem surprised and confused about how differently the events in Ferguson, Mo., are seen in the white community and in the African-American community. Whether it be the O. J. Simpson trial or Trayvon Martin trial, the data and probably our own experience suggests that we are two separate communities. I recommend the Atlantic article by Robert Jones as a fascinating review of this issue if you haven’t seriously explored it before this.

While 76 percent of African-Americans see the Ferguson shooting as suggestive of a specific pattern of police treatment of blacks, only 40 percent of whites agree. Eighty percent of blacks see the shooting in Ferguson as raising serious racial issues that need to be discussed. Only 37 percent of whites agree. According to Jones, one of the major problems is that whites have little or no contact with black Americans especially in terms of exploring together any of these issues. The social networks of whites are about 91 percent white. An astonishing 75 percent of whites have social networks that are 100 percent white. I think the point here is that a social network involves more than working in the same office, but also having other meaningful social contacts with black Americans outside of work.

We can confirm some of these findings by considering our own personal experiences. What is our reaction if we run into a black person in a place where we didn’t expect to see one? How do we feel about walking in a black neighborhood at night, or even during the day? Compound these appropriate or inappropriate feelings with being a policeman. Police officers have guns and their job is to protect others and themselves. In the heat of the moment when almost instantaneous reactions are required do they always get it right?  Add a police culture where for some officers there may be a readiness to attack the bad guys, and they may even feel a sense of entitlement to overreach and mistreat suspects because of a sense of outrage at the bad things they have done or may have done.

The case of the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland I find particularly disturbing. Again we are told the shooting was justified as was the case in Ferguson. It looked like a real gun. The boy didn’t follow orders. This is not unusual. Police shooting after police shooting is declared justified. Of course any police shooting can be declared justified depending on the criteria used to determine justification.

Regardless of whether the decision of the grand jury may or may not be legally correct, my question is when are we going to develop strategies, procedures and training that will prevent such tragedies or dramatically reduce their occurrence? I think one step might be to start providing intensive sensitivity training for police departments. Their job, absolutely, is to keep the peace. But they don’t need to believe that anyone they are confronting is automatically a terrible person who deserves to be roughly treated or worse.

Many of the actions taken in Ferguson from the governor to the officer in the street tended to escalate the situation rather than bring calm to the community. In other cities where protests occurred, including Baltimore, police handled things differently. They didn’t approach protestors in riot gear and they didn’t assume there were going to be riots. Results in these cities were a marked improvement over what happened in Ferguson.

We can do better as a community. More of our children do not need to die this way, but as long as tragic police shootings are routinely justified and the community accepts it as such, nothing will change. Maybe that’s what the protestors are trying to tell us.

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