Last night I spoke to about a hundred thoughtful citizens, mostly of retirement age, at a forum sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women. They were mostly great fans of Michigan Radio.
Several asked why I hadn’t said anything about the deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, or Eric Garner,
who died after being placed in a police chokehold last summer in New York.
I explained that I hadn’t for two reasons. One, I knew nothing directly about either case and two, these commentaries are focused on Michigan, whose problems and 10 million people I do know something about.
These weren’t Michigan cases, I said, to which one woman said, softly, “Oh yes, they are.”
And I realized that she was, in a sense, right. Yes, they do involve all of us, and they involve what Gunnar Myrdal so aptly called “The American Dilemma,” years before I was born.
They are about race, the dynamic that completely permeates the fabric of our society. I’ve been covering news for a long time, and I have learned that racism in America is something like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s classic definition of obscenity.
“I know it when I see it,” he said.
There are two other inconvenient truths about these cases that every fair-minded person should keep in mind.
First, none of us really knows what happened, because we weren’t there. None of us knows what really happened in either grand jury proceeding, because we weren’t there. But these cases are now so completely politicized that the actual facts have become largely irrelevant.
Some of those outraged wouldn’t be swayed if video footage emerged showing the dead men threatening the cops with machine guns.
Millions of whites see nothing wrong with police shooting an unarmed man multiple times and leaving his body in the street for hours, or choking a black guy to death because they suspected he was selling loose cigarettes.
There’s something deeply wrong here.
And if there’s a silver lining, it is that all this has us talking about our two giant elephants in the room, racism and police brutality. I am somewhat optimistic that something can be done about out of control police.
Too many cops are bullies; too many of them treat black people differently. There’s no doubt about that. However, race is a far harder problem. One of my jobs is to handle reader complaints for the daily newspaper in Toledo, Ohio.
Almost every day, I get comments about the president that are clearly motivated by racism. No, they aren’t usually in Ku Klux Klan language, but as Potter Stewart said, I know it when I see it.
I also know something else I can prove. White people in America are unwilling to live with black people. Yes, there are exceptions. But not many. The Detroit suburb of Southfield was less than one percent black in 1970. It was 30% black 20 years later, and is 75% black now.
I don’t know how we solve this, or if we can, but I do know we need to face it. If we do, then maybe those two men, and lots more whose names you haven’t heard, won’t have died for nothing.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.