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Monday, October 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — African-Americans are not alone in being horrified by the killing of Michael Brown. They are not alone in their concern over the police’s behavior. And there’s evidence that a large number of white Americans have still not fully formed their views on this tragedy. This means that how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the coming weeks really matters.

What you have probably heard up to now is how racially polarized the country is in its reaction to the shooting of Brown by a police officer — at least six times, including twice to the head. But polarization is the wrong concept here. The fact is that white Americans are clearly divided in their reactions, a sign that a broad national dialogue leading to change is possible — if, for once, we step outside the usual boundaries of our discord.

African-Americans are not divided. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted from Aug. 14 to Aug. 17, 80 percent of blacks said the case “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.” In addition, 65 percent said that the police response had gone too far.

Among whites, 37 percent said the case raises important issues about race, while 47 percent said “the issue of race is getting more attention in this case than it deserves.” To put this in context, Pew asked a similar question in July 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and found that only 28 percent of whites said the case raised important racial issues while 60 percent said race was getting too much attention.

This is a potentially significant shift. It’s possible that the direct involvement of the police in Brown’s death has an impact here, or that the discussion of the Martin shooting altered white opinion. Whatever the cause, we need to keep our eyes open to what’s happening.

Also noteworthy is that many whites have yet to form a view of the police response in Ferguson: 32 percent said the response has been “about right,” 33 percent said it has “gone too far” — and an astonishing 35 percent declined to express an opinion. Many white Americans are still watching, and listening.

As for confidence in the investigations of the killing, African-Americans are far more suspicious than whites, but white views are complicated. Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research, provided a detailed breakdown of opinion. Among whites, only 14 percent had a “great deal” of confidence in the investigations, 38 percent had a “fair amount,” 22 percent had “not too much,” and 10 percent had “none at all.” Among African-Americans, fully 45 percent had no confidence, while 31 percent had not too much, 12 percent had a fair amount of confidence, and 5 percent had a great deal.

Seen one way, there is an undeniable racial divide: Whites were three times more likely than African-Americans to have significant confidence in the inquiries. On the other hand, 43 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of whites positioned themselves at one of the two mid-points on the scale.

The most striking racial difference is on interest in the story itself: Pew found that while 54 percent of non-Hispanic African-Americans were closely following the news about the shooting and the protests, only 25 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 18 percent of Hispanics said they were.

It should not surprise us that blacks and whites see appalling episodes of this sort somewhat differently, given our nation’s history with racism. But we also ought to notice that empathy does exist across racial lines, and this should give us hope.

Countries tell themselves stories, and then they start believing them. If we keep misleading ourselves into thinking we are wholly divided by incidents of this sort, we won’t even try to talk to each other, let alone look for ways to improve the situations of young African-Americans or relations between our police and our minority communities.

We talk too much about “teachable moments” and have too few of them. That’s because the concept itself can have a condescending feel, implying that some people need to be teachers and others need to be pupils. In a democracy, we are all teachers and we are all students — and we’re obligated to search for common goals. We should join together in seeking a thorough investigation of Michael Brown’s death and remember that Martin Luther King Jr. instructed us all that we should “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

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  • Dominick Vila

    In a perfect world, what is happening in Ferguson should unite us, as it represents something that many of us, naively, thought belonged to the past. Unfortunately, instead of being concerned about the frequency of tragedies like this, instead of being concerned about the use of excessive force, instead of being outraged by the conditions that result in tragedies like this, the focus for many is that a 6 ft tall, 300 pound, teenager represented an unacceptable threat to a feeble and vulnerable police officer. The irony of attributing Ninja properties to an obese person escapes the ability of some to think rationally. In the world of make believe that influences the ability to rationalize thought, by some, police officers, most of whom are veterans and highly trained officers, become handicapped individuals whose only option, if they want to survive, is to shoot unarmed teenagers six times, and firing the fatal shots as the victim leans forward ready to collapse. The latter, rapidly evolves into evidence of a dangerous man, with a black belt in Karate, charging against an officer.
    Divisiveness? Yes, but it is not influenced by the record, the evidence, the coroner’s reports, the President’s unwillingness to utter the word “race”, or even logic. It is all about the preservation of a way of life that a small segment of our population wants to preserve…and many among us are too lazy or indifferent to stop it! Ours is not a racist society, or even a divided society. Ours is an ambivalent society where most people expect things to eventually fall into place…and they usually do, ever so slowly, as logic and a sense of humanity permeates the skin of those who enjoy living in the past and fear the future.

  • There are probable 30% of people on each side (or a total of 60%) whose minds are made up as to what’s going on, independent of incoming information. (Note that by ‘sides’ I mean police vs citizens)

    What’s clear to me utterly independent of the event of the death of Michael Brown, is the the Ferguson Police consider the Ferguson population to be less than full citizens. Even if the shooting the Brown turns out to be unquestionably justified, the response of the Police to the protesters has been anything but.

  • joe schmo

    I think this is an article quite appropriate at this time. It explains the Conservative viewpoint to a tee. Just who are the race-baiters…..

    • JPHALL

      Nice article. Sad that it is not what happens in the majority of cases. So many people love to live in their little worlds insulated from the larger reality. In areas where there is an intense competition for jobs the face of racism comes out clearly. Not just in the traditional places. To accuse Holder or others who point out the truth is self serving. I have sat on interview boards and it is surprising how much race matters in hiring and firing decisions.

  • charles king

    Critical Thinking is needed by all. What? the hell is going on in America is not new. Who? to blame. How? did we get to this point in America. When? are the People of concern come up with some answers that we all can recognize and start fixing our differences but What? are our differences, I do not know. MONIES are making a differences in our thinking of eachother. I hear news of concern about the Black male, Latino’s, now poor White males it all sound familar like back in the twenties and thirities When? Unions were getting started and a corporation force trying to stop the Unions then the poor White males were the leaders, today we have rich White males called Commissioners,and Greedy Capitalistic Pigs Plutocracts, and Representives Republicans and Democracts Who? aren’t doing their jobs with you the People’s tax MONIES so What? I am saying is, WHERE? is our Democracy that is the question cause all I see Is What? my parents and grandparents saw living in the South of these United States. Think People this greater than racism, and the reaction of the Ferguson police department this is about your Democracy are we the People going to be governed for some of the People or For, Of, And By All of the People. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

  • Allan Richardson

    Many well-meaning conservative voters of good will want to get past the question of race, and have been persuaded by untruths, told by a few, that there is some sort of “liberal conspiracy” keeping “race envy” alive in order to have political clout. But in reality the special interests which depend upon conservative fears are keeping the KKK, the CCC (not the new deal agency, but the “Conservative Citizens Councils” which were renamed from the old “White Citizens Councils” created to fight to keep Jim Crow in the 1960s), the American Nazi Party, Aryan Nation, etc funded and alive. There are no liberals who believe that EVERY single white police officer or conservative office holder PERSONALLY hates black people; the problem is that old power structures put people who WERE discriminated against in the past at a disadvantage, even without INTENDING to discriminate. The fact is that the only way to help large numbers of people raised in disadvantaged communities to get ahead is to INCREASE certain types of government (federal, state and local) spending in order to provide good schools for all (not “alternative” or charter or private schools; they are like lifeboats for the lucky few, while not helping to keep the SHIP afloat ), and both fiscal conservatives and the special interests who persuade them want to do the opposite. Note that I am talking about helping LARGE NUMBERS of families; the “cream of the crop” often succeed in escaping the ghetto, physically and in other ways, despite the lack of public assistance, as shown by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others.

    Joe linked to a thoughtful article by a white conservative man whose adopted son is black, and it is fortunate that he has never experienced any racial discrimination. But not all mixed families are quite as lucky.

    I am not sure what the final outcome of the Brown shooting investigation might be. Perhaps (and I hope so) Officer Wilson was actually threatened, or possibly he felt threatened because a large black teenager appealed to his unconscious fears. Perhaps Michael Wilson will turn out to have been the violent thug that conservatives claim, and perhaps not. But the very fact that shooting a suspect was resorted to FIRST, before talking, indicates that one or the other, possibly both, needed to learn a lesson. And from the reaction of the power structure, it seems that many OTHER black teenage boys and young men HAVE experienced police encounters in which the police thought of them as “suspects” first, because of their skin, rather than as “citizens” or “kids” who may need some correcting, as would be the case with a white kid. The overall SYSTEM is what retains the racism, even when individuals are not racist, and the system is what keeps racist attitudes alive in some people’s minds.

    But just because Eric Holder is a black Attorney General, appointed by a black President, does NOT in itself mean that he wants to “stir up” black hatred of white police. His aim in this crisis, as in other issues, is to be sure that the black community are treated as EQUALS by police and government agencies in the future. Part of this mission is to be sure that the investigative process does not APPEAR to be biased in the eyes of African Americans, whether it was or not. Another part is to make sure those who run police agencies, especially in areas with a dark, racist past history, become willing to treat citizens of all racial and ethnic groups as citizens first, possible suspects only AFTER evidence is obtained, and never as “Judeans under Pontius Pilate,” even if a few of them riot and loot.

  • ExRadioGuy15

    The point the author made about how we’ve progressed slightly as a nation in the year between the Zimmerman trial and the Brown shooting is a point I made just yesterday….but….
    There still is a division…and, it’s still fairly wide. The “divides us less than we think” part of the article’s title is too vague.
    What it should have said was that, while there’s still a division, we’ve made some progress in the past year. I realize that stating that in a more concise manner to fit as a title to an article is difficult, but the editor should have tried to.

    • ExRadioGuy15

      “Ferguson shows us there’s a racial divide, but it’s not as wide as it once was”

  • Blueberry Hill

    Here is a petition all Dems should want to sign. Please sign and share.

    Just highlight and click