In a time wounded by violence on our streets, let us speak with care


I’m sitting here staring at my keyboard, trying to find words that somehow keep up with the pace of awful news from the streets of our cities.

I wrote the radio version of this commentary Friday morning.  By Saturday, it seemed sadly out of date, outstripped by the events in Brooklyn, when a twisted soul claiming to be motivated by the events in Ferguson and Staten Island assassinated two New York City police officers at random.

So let me add this to the “clarifying statements” in which I tried to couch the original of this essay: 

No one of us who has not lived the job can have a full sense of the pressure and risk built into the day-to-day routine of a big-city police officer. 

While I can’t see any way to excuse the actions of officers on Staten Island and in Cleveland that led to needless deaths, I also want to stress that those of us who’ve never worn blue can never truly appreciate how difficult are the snap judgments officers must make in dangerous situations.

Or even in workaday ones, such as in Brooklyn, when at a very ordinary moment on a Saturday afternoon, death in the form of a deranged spirit walked up casually to a NYPD cruiser and stole two men from their families and friends. 

Anyway, though vividly aware how inadequate the words now seem, let me present here the holiday meditation on the need for rational dialogue that I penned on Friday morning:

I’m about to tread on risky turf here, so let me begin with some clarifying statements.

First, I’d like to see every pro athlete in America, black, white, or whatever, wear an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt at their next game. Anything to push the lagging conversation.

Second, I’m stunned that what seems to me to be the worst of the fatal police blunders that have stained 2014, the trigger-happy shooting of a 12-year-old in my native city of Cleveland, hasn’t caused more national outrage.

Third, I know that, as the splendid Nick Kristof just demonstrated in a series of New York Times columns, a lot of white Americans live in a mental la-la land where racial injustice is somehow a thing of the past.

All that said, may I mention what seems a distressing trend in what some important African-American voices have been saying in the wake of the recent infuriating.

You hear an angry impatience with any suggestion that race relations or opportunities have improved. And a suggestion that that all white Americans, despite any masks or platitudes they offer, are all at base still racist.

I don’t question: Why the anger, why the impatience? Not after Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland.

But I do know that the ways in which we talk about one another now, in this wounded moment, will shape our ability to find a new way forward.

On a pragmatic level, it’s just not good strategy to tell people whose minds you want to open up: “The real reason you did, said or thought that thing is you’re racist.”

Once you call someone a racist, you give them no place to go; you wipe out any motivation to change. Why tacitly admit their former behavior was, in fact, motivated by racism?

Beyond that, there’s a syndrome that social psychology calls stereotype threat. African Americans know it all too well. Plenty of research shows that, if black students are told that a test measures their native ability, they do a lot worse on it than they would otherwise. The weight of others’ negative views about you actually can damage your performance.

I’m not equating the toxicity of racial stereotypes, but doesn’t it stand to reason that a stereotype of: “No matter what they say, all whites are racist” might have a similarly damaging impact? I’m not recommending we ignore the toxic racism that does linger.

I’m saying that sweeping negative generalizations are counterproductive, no matter who voices them.

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