“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” James Baldwin
I’m struck by the plainspoken distrust of this quote, and by how much it reflects the state of race relations in our country today on the heels of the death of Michael Brown and the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Trust is broken when we say we behave one way and then we act differently. On a national scale, there is a degree of broken trust across racial lines that we often look past – until something hits the headlines that puts it into our living rooms and social media feeds again.
Whether we feel that the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer was a crime and warranted a trial, or a police officer acting in self-defense, it reveals a large gap between black and white perception of this issue, and spotlights the tremendous degree of distrust between blacks and whites in this country.
We say that racial prejudice is largely in the past, but the facts tell another story. The issues of race relations, racial inequality and violence against blacks are polarizing. Having a discussion about this case or the broader race issues (if we get past the sound bites) quickly evolves into a discussion of class, economic disparity, etc. They are tough issues that do not lend themselves to the sound-bite answers so favored by modern media.
The national reaction is to retreat to our respective corners, talk to friends who agree with us on the issue – but that’s not at all the path to change. I saw an article with some recent Pew Research Center poll statistics yesterday that shows that the % of black people who feel racism is a key issue that requires broader national focus was 80%, as compared to 44% of whites who responded the same way.
We do not all agree there is a problem.
So like with other similar tragedies, the news cycle will run its course and the issue will fade – only to resurface the next time there is another touchstone case that gains public attention. We want to believe we are a country that is not unequal across racial lines. But until we can admit that its not yet our reality, charting a course toward that will be elusive.
If I reflect on our family discussions in the last couple days on the Michael Brown case, these are tough, delicate discussions that are difficult even when you are trying your hardest to be respectful of other points of view. We might disagree on our interpretation of the facts, on what this case does or doesn’t say about racism in American, and about how to express our feelings and be a voice for change.
The lack of trust and respect is in full view in the next two images:
we see fear, distrust, disrespect and contempt. It will take some great leaders, communicators and visionaries to help rally us to a better version of our country where race really is not a factor … but we are not there yet.
We need police officers and cannot even begin to imagine the self-sacrifice and bravery needed to go out to protect the community each day in unknown and dangerous circumstances. And these public servants must have the right to defend themselves in any situation of danger – no doubt. But issues of fear, distrust and disrespect affect all of us at the core and affect how we all behave toward one another. Police officers are not immune from unhealthy beliefs that can inform their behavior. So getting the relations right socially is critical to getting justice and fair/equal treatment when laws are being enforced.
One small memory in this vein…
Bryce and I have been married almost 20 years, and I remember clear as day the first time we took a road trip together and the little lesson on race relations I got on that trip.
When Bryce and I were dating, we decided to travel from Ohio to Virginia to meet his family and spend Thanksgiving with them. We were driving, and he showed up at my door in a business suit and dress shoes. Odd, I thought (as I sat in jeans and a t-shirt) … why are you all dressed up? What followed was a short chat about being a black man driving across various states, and the risk of being pulled over by a police officer, and the need to ‘make a good impression’ so that you would be treated with respect. I was skeptical and he shared stories. Not based on paranoia or media coverage – based on experience. He wasn’t complaining about it, no discussion of inequity or unfair treatment. Just a behavior change (that he had made for years) based on the reality of being a black man in a country where some white police officers may be biased to assume wrong doing based on the color of your skin.
It sounds small perhaps, but for me it was memorable. (Important to note that my husband is very pro-law enforcement, and would strongly support the right for any officer of any color to defend himself. I share the story only because in its own small way it introduced me to this question of different racial experiences.) When we talk about ‘institutionalized’ race issues, I come back to that simple memory. There’s no legislation or litigation that will solve this … over time, people have to see fair, consistent and equal treatment to believe it. But it does require an awareness that these prejudices exist.