That’s what should concern us now. When the nightly dance of angry protesters, opportunistic criminals, and inept police clashing over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown finally ends, what steps should civic-minded people take to address the ongoing abuse of African Americans by the criminal injustice system? Not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but in America?
There will be no shortage of good ideas: dashboard cameras, community policing, the hiring of more black cops, the removal of military hardware from police arsenals, sensitivity training. To these, I would add a suggestion that is admittedly less “sexy” than any of those, but which I think has greater potential to make fundamental change in the long term. In a word: education.
Beginning as early as the latter elementary years, schools should offer — no, require — age-appropriate cross-cultural studies that would, in effect, introduce us to us. Meaning not some airy fairy curriculum of achievements and accomplishments designed to impart some vague intra-cultural pride, but a hard-headed, warts and all American history designed to impart understanding of who we are, where we’re from and the forces that have made us — inner-city black, Appalachian white, barrio Mexican, whatever.
You might consider this a utopian idea. Maybe it is. But I’ve never been able to shake a conviction that if you walk the proverbial mile in another man’s shoes, you inoculate yourself against your biases toward him. I believe empathy follows understanding.
Surely we could use some empathy just now. As America races toward a future in which no one race is numerically dominant, it remains largely a nation of cultural illiterates content to interpret various Others through lenses of stereotype and canard. If this has been a bonanza for certain politicians (“Elect me and I’ll keep you safe from the gays/the Mexicans/the blacks!”), let us never forget that this ignorance, these unconscious biases for and against, have real world impact.
Michael Brown lying dead in the street is seemingly one image thereof. Here’s another:
Last Thursday at 2:30 in the morning, seven teenagers, ages 18 and 19, broke into the home of basketball star Ray Allen. Allen, who played last season for the Miami Heat, was not home, but his wife was. Waking to find strangers in her bedroom, she screamed and they ran.
Police say the teenagers, who had been at a party at a house near Allen’s in the tony South Florida suburb of Coral Gables, didn’t think anybody was home and simply wanted to see what it looked like inside. The kids were questioned and released. Authorities have thus far declined to prosecute, saying — incredibly — that under Florida law, there was no crime with which the group could be charged.
It ought not surprise you to learn that these kids were white Hispanics. And I challenge you — I double-dog dare you — to tell me seven black kids who invaded a home in a wealthy neighborhood in the middle of the night would have likewise gotten off with a good talking to. Black kids are strangers to such lavish benefit of the doubt.
And we have been too sanguine for too long about such inequality of treatment in a nation whose birth certificate says, “all men are created equal.” We have only the one country. And we can either tear it apart or figure out a way we can all live in it in justice and thus, in peace.
To do that, we must stop being moral cowards, stop embracing the idea that somehow, our racial and cultural challenges will resolve themselves if we just don’t talk about them. Ignore it and it will go away. Take a good look at the carnage in Ferguson and ask yourself:
How’s that working out so far?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.