Everybody Wants to Talk About What Happened in Ferguson. Here's How a Constructive Conversation Might Begin.

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tags: racism, Police, Ferguson

Mike McQuillan, former Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, coordinated the Crown Heights Coalition after the August 1991 racial conflict in Brooklyn. He teaches history at the Brooklyn (NY) School for Global Studies.

It was – or wasn’t – racism. One side in streets cries out for action and change, while order is an aloof power structure’s priority. The latter contrasts a cop’s spotless service record with the dead victim’s pot traces, defaming his character. This deflects attention from the fact that a white officer shot and killed a black man.

It’s happened again, it’s happened too often and it will happen again unless we unravel this stalemate. Opinion polls profess to, in the New York Times’s recent words, “reveal a racial divide” that we, if honest, already knew was there.

Leaders laud our legal system, ignore its disparate impact, urge we await its inquiry, accept its verdict. They call for a “national conversation” but set up no structure. Ancient Athens in the age of Pericles held democratic discussions among two thousand citizens but that for us is impractical. Yet we need that conversation now. Intense protests followed the Rodney King beating and the gunshot killings of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin. A march and rally against the chokehold homicide of Eric Garner has just occurred. If we don’t talk frankly and listen honestly across that racial divide and then change something for real we’re in trouble.

People protest not merely to vent but to, in the First Amendment’s words, “petition the government for a redress of grievances,” to provoke action, in other words. But governmental action thus far in Ferguson has featured tanks, troops and clichéd calls for calm. Attorney General Holder, in his words “inspired by its people,” finds there “a real chance for reform.”

But whites fear black violence and they fear black political empowerment would produce “racism in reverse.” They preserve the myth of white supremacy and the reality of white privilege.

President Obama, uniquely able to address charged issues of prejudice and bigotry through the lens of personal experience – as he did during the 2008 campaign while refuting claims that the ministry of Reverend Jeremiah Wright was extremist – holds back as had Presidents who faced racial issues before him. His sensible stance as the President of all people taints his special status as the first Black President when we would benefit from his insights and resources.

Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 was reluctant to send troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce law, support school integration, and safeguard Black citizens. John F. Kennedy in 1963 feared the historic March on Washington would be chaotic, turn violent, antagonize senior southern Senators who controlled key committees, and prevent passage of his then-tentative civil rights proposals.

Yet Eisenhower’s later telegram to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus said that President would uphold his Constitutional oath and enforce the Supreme Court’s school integration decision “by every means at my command,” which included his eventual dispatch of the 101st Airborne Division to break through the barrier of Faubus’ Arkansas National Guard and escort the Little Rock Nine into high school.

Kennedy’s post-March statement, once he had met with its leaders, said “One cannot help but be impressed with the deep fervor and quiet dignity that characterizes the thousands who have gathered in the Nation’s Capital from across the country to demonstrate their faith and confidence in our democratic form of government.”

Kennedy also strengthened efforts to earn congressional passage of his civil rights proposals (“to broaden the manpower development and training program, the youth employment bill, amendments to the vocational education program, the establishment of a work-study program for high school-age youth,” “obtain increased employment and eliminate discrimination in employment practices,” and more).

His nationally televised address called civil rights “a moral issue as old as the Nation itself and as sacred as the Scriptures.” Kennedy used Presidential power and Federal resources to enforce school integration in Mississippi and Alabama, protecting heroic Black individuals. His actions and theirs advanced democracy for all Americans.

When President Obama said ”to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other” he could have modeled a reflection as to why an angry hopelessness pervades black communities over the insensitive, oppressive inaction of white officials. He might also have acted --sponsoring through legislative action or Executive Order model interracial conversations about stereotypes, prejudice and bigotry that would produce program and policy changes in Ferguson and other communities.

Heartened by the President’s example, we could place Michael Brown’s tragic death in context and perhaps prevent its recurrence.

Seasoned experts from the Richmond-based Hope in the Cities could manage that process. That organization, having internationally and domestically pioneered precepts that “all parties come to the table,” plus the “walk through history” at sites integral to the shared memory and experience of those parties, has for twenty years had interracial task forces working in Dayton, Camden, Los Angeles, Hartford, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and elsewhere as well as in Richmond itself, at one time the Confederate capital.

Hope In the Cities’ 1993 founding statement, written by Richmond Mayor Walter Kenney, Grace Harris, Provost of Virginia Commonwealth University, and Harry Jacobs, a prominent corporate leader, warned “The deepening crisis facing Richmond and other central cities is becoming nothing short of a natural disaster. Neither the laissez-faire workings of the marketplace nor traditional government solutions are going to avert this disaster… issues of race, class, economics and geography constitute fundamental roadblocks on nearly all fronts. We will not find cures to our urban problems until we can honestly work through these issues and deal forthrightly with each other – without mistrust, misunderstanding, and resentment.”

With Detroit declaring bankruptcy, New York divided over the Garner tragedy, and Congress at a standstill with Speaker John Boehner asking citizens to “judge us not on the basis of how many new laws we’ve passed but on how many we’ve repealed,” professionally-led discussions piercing denial, shelving harmony clichés, healing pain and producing shared civic action must become more than a cottage industry.

President Obama could enlist Hope in the Cities, the Mississippi-based William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, the Anti-Defamation League’s “A World of Difference” program, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP to establish and conduct perception-sharing and problem-solving discussions on a broad systemic scale.

The national concerns that beset Ferguson need a firm, nationwide White House response.

Mr. Obama should recruit a pilot group of recognized senior leaders of diverse ethnic organizations to take part in a facilitated model dialogue to make the public aware of its potential if replicated. This would diminish resistance, encourage participation and dispel our racial stalemate.

Because President Clinton’s “One America” Race Initiative published and disseminated a directory of expert racial dialogue trainers, their details are readily available.

The President could meet separately with Michael Brown’s parents and Ferguson authorities –the former to honor the earnest resolve with which they express themselves, empathize with their grief, and enlist their help as national conversation sponsors; the latter to urge a set-aside of military combat equipment, make a statement of remorse and compassion, then reach across “the race divide” in an interracial community service project that facilitated discussions, including the crafting of a Police-Community Bill of Rights (or Declaration of Interdependence) that makes plain what each pledges the other for the sake of safety for all.

South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the hard-hitting but largely suppressed report of President Johnson’s 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the “Kerner Commission”) might serve as models help us root out the causes and address underlying interracial concerns from both sides’ perspectives.

Realities like white privilege, black-on-black crime and “Stop-and-Frisk” police profiling practices should be included. So should the poverty and politics that preserve white privilege and prevent equality.

The late Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s pilot Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn marshaled outside resources to remedy institutional racism by enhancing housing, employment and education in one pilot place, dispelling stereotypes and reducing crime. Our “national conversation” could assess that effort, refine it, and replicate it in several key areas.

Dr. King fifty years ago set forth a dream at the Lincoln Memorial. But in front of The Great Emancipator, whose Second Inaugural Address like Mr. Obama’s recent remarks, appealed to “the better angels of our nature,” Dr. King called for economic justice in America, which he called “the cashing of a check” and the redemption of a “promissory note” inherent in the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution.

It’s time to pay up – not in dollars but in commitment to a long-term “national conversation” in many parts of the nation to bridge the racial divide, root out the causes of conflict, and solve them so that the word and not the gun becomes the tool of choice before the next crisis occurs. 

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