Talking Past Each Other – Ferguson, Garner and Race

King-Hands-Up-300x174By Noam Bramson

The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have stirred a heated national dialogue about racial disparities in law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our society as a whole.  I don’t claim any special wisdom or originality on these difficult subjects, but as the mayor of a city that prides itself on diversity — and as someone accountable for the conduct of a Police force — I feel a duty to speak out.

Let me acknowledge up front that it is hard for me to grasp how these incidents do not warrant an indictment, especially in the case of Eric Garner . . . yet I am reluctant to pass harsh judgment on the grand juries.  By their very nature, grand juries are required to focus narrowly on the specifics of a case as presented to them, and to set aside broad social context.  Moreover, every detail, from the physical position of hands, to an officer’s state of mind, to the distinction between surrendering and charging, is filtered through human memory and perception, which are always fallible and subjective.  While each of us may be convinced of our opinions from afar, when you get deep into the weeds like a grand jury, things may look murky and ambiguous.

It is only when you zoom out that the murkiness disappears, revealing a picture that is crystal clear and deeply disturbing:

•  Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males; black drivers are three times as likely as white drivers to be searched during a stop; black offenders receive longer sentences than white offenders convicted of the same crime.

Then zoom out even further:

•  White households have a median income 72% higher than black households; the typical white family hassix times the wealth of the typical black family.

It starts almost immediately:

•  Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school; black students are four times more likely than white students to attend schools with under-qualified teachers.

And it shapes almost all of us:

•  A mountain of psychological research shows that subconscious racial bias is widespread, even among those who do not knowingly harbor any racist views.

These are stark and brutal facts.  And they pose a fundamental challenge to our nation’s core principles. Continue reading

Just What Does Post-Racial Mean

My wife and I recently spent time with some good friends, whom we’ve known for years, in a New England beach town. At dinner, the host made a comment about each couple at the table. When it came to us, he said “Our African-American friends.” While our host said it as a passing joke, it sparked a lively but unintended conversation. It rambled from race relations, to American foreign policy, to JFK (don’t ask, still haven’t figured that out yet).

It did get me thinking about race relations and just what it means to be post-racial and if that is a good thing. I looked up post-racial in my favorite online dictionary, Urban Dictionary. They define it as:

A term used to describe a society or time period in which discussions around race and racism have been deemed no longer relevant to current social dynamics. Popularized after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America in 2009.

Can’t imagine we will ever get there, nor am I so sure we should on the first part. One of the guests who lived overseas for part of her life, described how race/color wasn’t seen nor ever an issue. While that is laudable, it is not a world in which I want to live or think we should live in. What I would like to see is a world that recognizes our differences and celebrates them.

In a prior life, I traveled extensively for my job. I was always struck by what I considered the downside of globalization. Nothing was more depressing than seeing a Starbucks, KFC, Gap, or Walmart dotting the landscape. At every destination I tried my best to explore and see the local shops and culture. why travel that far to pick up a pair of blue jeans or sip a caramel macchiato. So much more can be gained by seeing how others live.

Getting back to the US and race relations, I’m happy to say that while we may not be post-racial, we are at a point where friends can sit around a dinner table and have an open and honest conversation without judgement. More and more folks are having these conversations and its through dialogue where progress and understanding is achieved.

I’ll leave with this one last thought. Let’s dispense with the description of America as a melting pot and start talking about America as a tapestry. Each strand adding its unique perspective that makes America what it is today.

Jeffrey Hastie