It was inevitable that the tragedy in Ferguson would prompt calls for a national conversation on race – just like in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating in 1992 and the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2013. But it’s tough to achieve Kumbaya when blacks and whites continue to talk past each other.
Some commentators even insist that President Obama should be leading a conversation on race – somehow forgetting that Obama’s race would complicate his role as facilitator. Whites who already dislike him would challenge his objectivity, and if he were to play it down the middle, blacks would attack him for pulling his punches. Heck, Bill Clinton, a far better communicator, conducted a national conversation on race back in 1997, and it flopped – not that anyone remembers (although I certainly do).
The biggest problem is that most blacks and whites, drawing on their very different life experiences, perceive things very differently. This was manifestly evident in autumn 1995, after O. J. Simpson was acquitted. According to the polls, most whites looked at the evidence and were convinced of his guilt; most blacks cheered his acquittal and rejoiced in sticking to law enforcement – a system that, in their view (and, often, in their experience) had long targeted them unfairly.
And with Ferguson, 19 years later, it’s the same basic pattern. In a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of blacks say that the fatal shooting of Michael Brown “raises important issues about race” – but only 37 percent of whites agree. Among whites, a 47 percent plurality believes that, in the Brown case, “race is getting more attention than it deserves” – but only 18 percent of blacks agree. Among whites, 52 percent have confidence in the current government investigations (33 percent are skeptical); among blacks, only 18 percent have confidence (76 percent are skeptical).
A similar racial divide surfaces in a HuffingtonPost/YouGov poll: 76 percent of blacks say that the Brown shooting fits a broader pattern of how cops often treat black men – roughly double the percentage of whites who feel that way. Why the divide? Because life experience shapes beliefs. According to a New York Times-CBS News poll, conducted this month, “45 percent of blacks say they have experienced racial discrimination by the police at some point in their lives; virtually no whites say they have.”
Worse yet, blacks and whites rarely talk with each other about that stuff – because they tend not to mix much at all. According to a survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute (a nonpartisan group that focuses on values and civic life), white social networks are typically 93 percent white and 1 percent black. The survey also found that 75 percent of white social networks have no minority presence at all.
So one of the only ways that whites can understand the black perspective on Ferguson is to listen, for instance, to a respected black commentator. Someone like Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, who recently recalled the advice his mom gave him when he was younger: “How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail – or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.”
The attitude, among many whites, is that the civil rights movement succeeded (no more institutional segregation!), and that blacks exaggerate their tensions with the cops (despite the evidence of disproportionate traffic stops and arrests for pot possession). But all too often, whites refuse to acknowledge (or even recognize) the economic factors that often feed those tensions.
Only 34 percent of black households earn at least $50,000 a year – the rough definition of the middle class – and that share has barely budged since 1992. Today’s median black family, on an annual basis, earns just 60 percent of what a white family earns – and that stat has barely budged since 1992. All told, it’s hard to have a genuine conversation about race when whites typically know so little about black people’s lives.
Which reminds me of something indelible that happened when I was 11 years old (maybe if enough white people had this kind of experience, the polls today might be different):
At a summer camp in the Berkshires, I got friendly with a black kid named Charlie. The only black in camp, apparently. We used to sneak out after curfew and canoe across the moonlit lake to a general store that stayed open til midnight. I told him that I liked canoeing with him at night because he was too dark for the counselors to spot. He seemed to find that funny enough. But the first time we reached the far side of the lake and stored the canoe, he froze in his tracks midway to the store. I said, “Charlie, something wrong?”
“You go on ahead,” he said. “You go in first. I’ll be along soon. And if I don’t come in, get me some Fireballs.”
I just stared at him, genuinely confused. Then he said, “C’mon – you think they want to see me coming through the door this close to midnight?”
I didn’t get it then, but I do now.
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