The tragic events in Ferguson and Milwaukee and New York and elsewhere of a black man being killed by police officers has resulted in some strong responses. People have demonstrated, both legally and illegally. People have resorted to violence, including looting and the destruction of property. In response, people have condemned the lawless conduct and have strongly supported the findings of various authorities that the evidence surrounding these killings was not sufficient to require an indictment of those who had done the killing. The relative merits of charging or not charging these officers will be debated for a very long time, and there is abundant evidence to support the arguments of both sides.
There is, however, an issue underlying all of these events that is not being much mentioned, and it is an issue that merits a great deal of discussion. It is this: whatever may be the merits of any particular case, it is undeniable that the experience of being black in America is radically different from that of being white. If you don’t think that’s true, then it is quite likely that you have never raised the subject with someone who is African-American. If you are in that position, then it is easy enough to get the idea by asking yourself this question: all other things being equal, would you prefer to be white or to be black? Aside from a few rather snide remarks that I sense you formulating, I think the honest answer is pretty evident. Being black in America automatically subjects you to some prejudgments and some indignities that few whites will ever experience. For example, many of my African-American friends refer to the traffic offense that they call OWB — operating a vehicle while black. It is still not uncommon in some suburbs for a black person driving a car to be routinely, and frequently, stopped for no apparent reason. Black people find themselves far more closely scrutinized when they browse in stores. Black people still feel held to higher standards when they apply for jobs. And, as is obvious to anyone who looks, there is still a distinct segregation in housing, as witness the so-called “inner city” and the almost lily white suburbs.
There is no quick fix for that disparity, since it is so deeply grounded in history and economics. It does help, howwever, to understand the intense level of anger and deep feeling expressed in the protests surrounding these recent killings. Killing an unarmed man or a boy with a toy gun may or may not be a disputable event. Those killings may even have somehow been justified by the circumstances. I am not a police officer, and I was not present for any of these killings. Nor did I know either Michael Brown or the boy with the toy gun. What I do know is that those killings could easily ratify the undeniable sentiment shared almost universally by the African-American community that they are automatically disadvantaged merely by the color of their skin.
Is that feeling justified? You would have to be from another planet to think otherwise. The centuries-old practice of legal American slavery is barely 160 years behind us. Legal segregation is only a few decades behind us. All-white clubs and churches and neighborhoods abound. Statistics about traffic stops and arrests and job opportunities and a host of other things make it clear that we have a long way to go to achieve, if ever we do, a culture that ignores race in our prejudgments.
So, I put it to you, here is the value of all this intense unrest. It is an opportunity to have the real discussion that we have so long avoided. We need to look at those marches and demonstrations and even that looting and destruction as a rebuke to our nonchalant dismissal of the issue of race in America. We ignore, and even promote, the continuation of the problem at our peril. America has put equality as its ideal. This unrest demonstrates that we have not achieved it, and we will not have it until we face this cancer that has existed since the founding of the Republic.