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Black Rage And White Denial Divide Us? Let’s Talk! A Ferguson Follow-up.

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Mike McQuillan coordinated the Crown Heights Coalition’s healing work after the 1991 racial crisis in Brooklyn, New York. A former U.S. Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, he teaches history at the Brooklyn School for Global Studies.


“I’m convinced that we need an open, honest dialogue on the subject of race and I’m going to do everything I can to get it started.”

Senator Bill Bradley wrote this to me in September 1991 because I had praised his frank talk on race, unique for a prominent white American. His public criticism of President George H.W. Bush’s “willingness to take divisive positions on race,” including his lax handling of a civil rights bill and his 1988 campaign’s distortion of a black convict’s release on a furlough in Massachusetts.

After the 1992 Rodney King verdict acquitting police officers who had clubbed him fifty-six times in eighty-one seconds in Los Angeles, Bradley, in a Senate floor speech, condemned their racist defense which “on a thinly veiled attempt to play off racial stereotypes and fears called King a bear, a bull and a gorilla; the worst, the worst of the dehumanizing descriptions of black Americans that have fueled hatred, fear and discrimination throughout our history.”

Fast-forward to Ferguson, Missouri, Fall 2014: Officer Darren Wilson testifies to the Grand Jury judging whether or not to indict him for killing the unarmed Michael Brown that Wilson “felt like a five-year old holding on to Hulk Hogan” during their struggle and that Brown, “angered,” looked like a “demon” after Wilson’s six shots pierced his body.


Bradley left the Senate after losing to Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic Party’s 2000 presidential primary campaign. Today no one fills his shoes to hold accountable those who spread these destructive, dangerous stereotypes. We have black anger and white denial, mutually reinforcing and divisive. Bradley’s “open, honest dialogue,” if it ever existed, disappeared.

President Bill Clinton in June 1997 told us “we need a national dialogue on controversial issues surrounding race” in announcing his year-long “One America” Initiative. He appointed an Advisory Commission before which “experts” and citizens testified about research and experience at town hall sessions that produced transcripts, a report and a directory of the Richmond-based Hope In the Cities, the William Winter Institute For Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi and other human relations organizations. But there was no coordinated, lasting dialogue program and thus no lasting effects.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in Ferguson to launch a federal investigation last August, called for a “national conversation on race” and called us “a nation of cowards” for not having already had those discussions.

We are far from the progress on race relations we claim to have made since Emancipation, Jim Crow segregation, and the Civil Rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, or even the election of the first black president. The response to the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict shows the urgent need for passionate, reasoned and systematic discussion.

But no public or private sector leader has ever suggested how these conversations could start, who would plan and guide them, recruit the participants and aim them toward achieving concrete and specific outcomes – policies and programs to end “stop and frisk” oppression in communities of color? Restoration of the social safety net that Republican demands for (and Democratic acquiescence in) all-out deficit reduction diminished? A significant minimum wage rise to reduce income inequality? A moratorium on widespread voter suppression efforts targeting minority districts? No more but no less than an improved understanding of one another’s lives across the long-term racial divide? What outcomes might be both realistic and worthwhile?

Others fill the void from self-interest. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, three months after Brown’s dead body, riddled with bullets, was left on the street for four hours, set up a year-long commission “to investigate and report (in September 2015) on the underlying problems of race and poverty, housing and education, policing and criminal justice” in Ferguson.

What took so long? Why did only a young black man’s tragic death engage this senior official’s interest in improving that community’s quality of life?

Beyond that, after a year more of waiting, what good will it do?

Other commissions have written reports that today look lovely on shelves, among them reports by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s Task Force on Bias-Related Violence and former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden’s Crown Heights Coalition. Their contributions were worthwhile but short-lived; the former showed how pervasive hate crimes victimizing many groups had become, the latter proved the community as a whole had been underserved, leading to competition, accusation and conflict – before a traffic accident killed a child and caused an explosion.

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was an exception. President Johnson appointed it after police brutality in a Milwaukee minority neighborhood in 1967 provoked riots in twenty-six U.S. cities, and charged it with finding out “what happened, why it happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.” Johnson disavowed its surprisingly hard-hitting conclusions: that we were “becoming two nations, one black, one white, separate and unequal” because “white institutions created and condoned the racial ghetto, a destructive environment unknown to most Americans.”

Our long-promised “national conversation on race” could start from that point.

Public opinion polls the New York Times cited in front-page stories after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Trayvon Martin’s death a year ago last summer, and again after the Ferguson Grand Jury last week declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson, professed to “reveal a racial divide” on attitudes toward those outcomes and criminal justice in general – as if we did not already know this division existed.

What will we do about it?

To condemn violent protest as criminal action without sensing the hopeless desperation at its root is wrong.  The long-term pattern of police white-on-black killings of young unarmed black men cannot be denied and our elected leaders must address it -- with policies, programs and the empathy that comes from a willingness to see "the other's" side.

How many more until empathy replaces denial by whites?

How long must we wait until anger is unneeded to make black voices heard?

How long must we wait for federal, state and local leaders to set an example?

Moreover, the Times wrote in September 2014 that “in hundreds of police departments across the country, the percentage of whites on the force is more than thirty percentage points higher than in the communities they serve,” and that these disparities “are most pronounced in smaller Midwestern cities like Ferguson where minorities make up at least two-thirds of the population.”

To what extent do prevailing race stereotypes influence actions of police commanders, detectives, or patrol officers like Darren Wilson?

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s televised post-Ferguson claim that “you wouldn’t need white police officers if black people weren’t killing each other” and a Brooklyn deli customer’s cry that “they use any damn excuse to burn something down!” that I by chance overheard while buying coffee on the morning after the first night of violence in Ferguson, prove pernicious race stereotypes pervade our society.

While most individuals regardless of attitude exert self-control for the sake of just getting along, other factors may make stereotypes inflammatory.

The Pentagon’s post-9/11 distribution of armored vehicles and other surplus military equipment to 17,000 local police departments lends credence to minority views of urban police forces as occupying armies.

“Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security disbursed $35 billion in grants to state and local police,” according to the Economist in 2014, from Federal antiterrorism funds. “That is why the quiet little town of Keene, New Hampshire has an armored personnel carrier called a BearCat, which the local police chief said might be used to protect its pumpkin festival,” the story added.

The harsh state and local response to the initial peaceful protests in Ferguson last August censor the laughter the pumpkin tale might otherwise cause.

The burden that prominent officials and media place on protestors, to “be peaceful” and “show restraint” after an excessive force episode distorts reality and absolves authorities and institutions of their rightful responsibility for racism’s deadly effects.

Missouri Governor Nixon’s assurance that his National Guard and police deployment in Ferguson would protect “the people’s right to have voices heard” misconstrued the historic purpose of protest rights. Our Constitution’s First Amendment sanctifies the “right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievance.”

To define protest as merely for venting alone is to dismiss a provision intended to safeguard our then- and still- fragile democracy. So did the media’s sensational focus on violence along West Florissant Avenue with the broad national reaction of large peaceful crowds in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere among twenty-five U.S. cities skimmed in clips.

Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now… the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through.”

Isn’t it time? President Obama 2008 Philadelphia race speech said it was.

In 2014 Obama, addressing the media at the White House after the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision, rightly called on law enforcement “to work with and not against minority communities.” He also assured protestors that “there are ways to channel your energies constructively.” Yet this left us with abstractions no more helpful than calling for a “national conversation on race” without structure or plan.

Republican voter suppression efforts against minority and immigrant communities and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision construing unlimited financing of political campaigns as the exercise of free speech have narrowed the options for effective grassroots civic action.

The prevalence of white-dominant gated communities like the one that spawned Florida vigilante George Zimmerman prevents positive productive racial interaction and abets white racism’s denial of life’s realities in communities of color. Police militarization in urban settings and open-carry gun possession laws in many states seem enforcement not protection mechanisms for a static political system that excludes those whom a true democracy would welcome.

The colonial hypocrisy of Washington and Jefferson espousing unalienable rights during our revolutionary and founding eras while “owning” 271 and 269 enslaved African-Americans, respectively, is mirrored now by how our Congress and successive presidents have squandered human lives and trillions of dollars “fighting for democracy” abroad while avoiding and sustaining our domestic racial divide.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “police behavior in minority communities” the “single biggest problem in America’s race relations.” President Kennedy had already warned that “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

We do now more than ever need that “national conversation on race.”

Let’s start it, let’s have it, let’s use it to heal our racial divide and change something for real…. BEFORE the next race crisis occurs.



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