A Different World

Blog | Ferguson, Myrtle Beach, New York: Dealing with race in difficult moments; why black men and police need each other

A look at the two New York officers who were killed this weekend.

A few thoughts I had after hearing about those murders:

- These are the worst of times to talk about an issue as complex as race because fear and anger often cloud our judgment, particularly when bad and uncomfortable things happen. It's always best to talk about it before the storm, but too many of us convince ourselves that when there is no storm, dealing with race is unnecessary. I hope people are beginning to see the folly in that logic. This is a deeply-rooted issue that reaches back to before our founding; ignoring or making light of it won't make it go away.

- I'll repeat what I said many times before. President Obama should start a tour, primarily a listening, not speaking one, dealing with the issue of race and mistrust. And he should begin it, not in Ferguson, but somewhere in Kentucky where people are most likely to be suspicious of him and the changes going on in the country. You can't breakthrough on this issue doing what people expect. I'd invite Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to be a part of that first leg - to listen. Then he can get around to other places where black people need to be heard as well. After gathering data and stories - from listening - then talk of big speeches and policies would be in order. There is a time for debate, for talk of the necessity of structural changes. Then there is a time to make sure people know they are being heard, no matter who believes who is right. That time is now.

- I've also said this before: I'd sideline Al Sharpton, not to demean him, but because his presence alone, for a variety of reasons, makes it harder to have the calm, rational, cross-cultural discussions that are necessary. If such a face is necessary, I'd enlist the help of Colin Powell to tour with the president.

- That's for the president. What about the rest of us? I'd suggest something similar. Go to people and places to have the hard conversations you really don't want to. And don't debate - listen. Listen to not only what they are saying, but why. And don't assume their views are coming from a nefarious place, because oftentimes they aren't, even when they believe and say things that anger you. I'm talking about the people you really don't want to listen to at all. Go to them. It's possible to breakthrough, but it takes a lot of patience, humility and empathy - three things often lacking in such conversations.

- Anyone who is not aggrieved by what happened in New York last night must not have a soul. For those who remember how they felt when people seemed to make excuses and mention mitigating circumstances, and not seem to care when Trayvon Martin, and others were killed, you shouldn't make the same mistake in this case. What happened was wrong, horrible, disgusting. Period. No amount of anger over the system warranted the death of two cops. (Also, many people ignored the multiple shootings of police officers, execution-style earlier this year in places like Las Vegas and elsewhere, including a couple who were a part of the Cliven Bundy ranch protesters. I'm not sure why those stories didn't resonate more - when I wrote about them almost no one responded - but maybe we'll all pay more attention to that under-reported story now.)

- Just last week I wrote that cops and black men, two groups who create far more good in this world than bad, were in the midst of sharing a similar fate, having all the good overshadowed by the bad, which meant there was reason for the groups to empathize with each other. That is even truer today. No one wants to be defined by the worst acts or actors in their midst. No one wants to be known as a threat simply because they belong to a particular group.

- I have not had 'the talk' with my son about police officers that many people have. Why? Not because I don't fear the worst; I do. I haven't, and likely won't, because I know that it is important not to push him towards seeing any group as a threat simply because a relative few in their ranks do bad things. I don't want cops doing that to my son and his friends, and I don't want to do that to cops. But I still want to solve deep-seated structural problems that exist in the criminal justice and educational systems that make it harder for cross-racial trust to take hold. Those hard, uncomfortable conversations must take place and lead to real change if we are to come through all of this better on the other side.

- One more thing. Don't take this the wrong way, but on such issues, we often don't respond or think with only our rational mind. That's just a function of the way our brains work, not a value judgment. Several things below the surface are at play when we respond to such events. Don't forget that and beware of how unintentional factors are affecting you and those you are trying to listen to.

This was the column I wrote last week comparing the challenges faced by police and black men when trying to dispel myths and stereotypes:

White Myrtle Beach police cops could have shot a black suspect but didn’t. What does that tell us?

From the piece:

Police officers, particularly the best of them, have reason to chafe at the attention police misconduct is getting.

Just last week, a couple of white Myrtle Beach police officers showed incredible restraint when facing an armed black man during a traffic stop, one in which the man presented a handgun, went for the officer’s weapon after he was disarmed, and after running away turned around, pulled something out of his pocket and threatened to shoot.

The cops didn’t empty their clips into his body. Instead, they noticed he was pointing a cell phone at them.

They arrested instead of shooting him.

Those types of events are under-reported, when police officers diffuse split-second, life-and-death situations without the loss of life.

When they are reported, though, we find it just as easy to believe the heroic cop is representative of his group as we are to link the black criminal to all black men, intentionally, or subconsciously.

It is true that no matter the recent headlines, and the all-too-real need for criminal justice reform, police officers shouldn’t be burdened by unfair, uninformed generalizations.

But neither should black men.

Here is how others are reacting to this weekend’s events:

The slain officers in Brooklyn