In The Heat of the Night

Published: December 5, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Beginning with last week’s grand jury decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, and continuing to Wednesday night, protesters calling for fundamental change in the way police operate have gained significant momentum in major cities across the country.

protesters

#CrimingWhileWhite became the unifying Twitter hashtag widely circulated since Wednesday’s decision by a New York grand jury not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner.

On December 3, The New York Times reported that “While hundreds of angry but generally peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in Manhattan as well as in Washington and other cities, the police in New York reported relatively few arrests, a stark contrast to the riots that unfolded in Ferguson in the hours after the grand jury decision was announced in the Brown case.”

That’s the good news.

“President Obama, speaking in Washington, said the decisions in New York and Missouri highlighted the frustrations that many African-Americans have harbored about a legal system that has a long history of discrimination against black people.”

National and community leaders including police, have called for a national conversation on race relations.

“WE Americans are a nation divided,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (Nov. 29). …

“We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. …

“ ‘In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,’ a 23-year-old black man wrote in May 1992. ‘In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.’

“He described an incident when he was stopped by six police officers who detained him, with guns at the ready, and treated him for 30 minutes as a dangerous suspect.

“That young man was future Senator Cory Booker, who had been a senior class president at Stanford University and was a newly selected Rhodes Scholar. Yet our law enforcement system reduced him to a stereotype — so young Booker sat trembling and praying that he wouldn’t be shot by the police.

“My sense is that part of the problem is well-meaning Americans who disapprove of racism yet inadvertently help perpetuate it. We aren’t racists, yet we buttress a system that acts in racist ways. It’s ‘racism without racists,’ in the words of Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, a Duke University sociologist.”

Kristof’s answer: “Impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America. … A new commission could jump-start an overdue national conversation and also recommend evidence-based solutions to boost educational outcomes, improve family cohesion and connect people to jobs. …

“There are no easy solutions,” Kristof concludes. “But let’s talk.”

Here’s how some readers responded:

“Does anyone other than me find Nicholas Kristof’s … series condescending?,” writes David Garner from New York.

“Who made Mr. Kristof the spokesman for blacks’ justified anger toward racism in America? I certainly don’t feel that he speaks for me and the other 40 million-plus black Americans. I think his solutions — ‘a new commission,’ a ‘national conversation’ — are the old bromides that won’t have any real effect on the problem, at least not while the parties in power are not talking to each other.

“Here’s one simple answer,” Garner adds, “Hire more black police officers to police black communities, especially more women, since studies have found that they are less likely to use deadly force in confrontations. Let’s ratchet down the tension before it escalates.”

Perhaps Ann Lynn from Scottsdale, Arizona summarizes what many feel.

“Nicholas Kristof’s last sentence is: ‘But let’s talk.’ That would be ideal. My question is: How?

“Some years ago, while I was serving on the board of a regional theater, I had the great pleasure of attending a small luncheon in honor of the playwright August Wilson. Something he said tore at me then and continues to do so. What he said, as I recall it, was: ‘To whites, it is never about race. To blacks, it is always about race.’ I repeat, how do we talk?”

Kristof is right about one thing, there are no easy answers.

If we are a country founded by immigrants from a diversity of races, religions and creeds, how do we all live under the unifying principle: “with liberty and justice for all”?

To be continued.

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