By Hastings Wyman
Early last week, it was white fraternity brothers in Oklahoma on a bus reciting a chant replete with the uber-derogatory n-word. Later, it was back to Ferguson, where demonstrators gathered in front of the police station and a person or persons unknown from nearby shot and seriously injured two police officers.
In a 1992 presidential debate, Ross Perot said, “We are all in this together. We ought to love one another … If we can’t love one another, we ought to get along with one another … we’re all stuck with one another, because nobody’s going anywhere. Right?”
Perot’s words were almost a copy of what Rodney King, the black man whose beating by cops led to Los Angeles riots that same year: “Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”
That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. We’re still stuck with one another and we’re still not getting along. That doesn’t mean nothing has changed, but not enough has changed.
Or that change doesn’t always stick.
CNN’s Don Lemon, who is African-American, interviewed two black alumni of the University of Oklahoma who had both been members of the SAE chapter whose members chanted the racist slur. Both seemed near to tears. They remembered their years at the fraternity as some of the best of their lives. It clearly hurt them that the acceptance and friendship that had marked their time there had morphed into the blatantly racist behavior of today.
Lest us white folks think that black folks are making too much of what a bunch of drunk undergraduates do, Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist who is African-American, put the black reaction in perspective, noting that in a few years, those same “boys on the bus could be expected to end up in executive positions with the power to hire and fire. What chance would an African American job applicant have of getting fair consideration?”
I’m not sure Robinson is right, given the laws and increasingly diversity-conscious corporate culture of today, but I do know this. If I were black, I would be afraid that Robinson is right. And I would also believe that the police and many others in positions of authority would not give me a fair shake.
A Gallup Poll released last week reported that, among young American men ages 18 to 34, Asians had the best sense of well-being, followed by Latinos, non-Hispanic whites and, in last place, blacks. The differences appear slight, but Gallup said they were statistically significant. This should come as no surprise.
There is, of course, another side, and FBI Director James Comey in a speech at Washington’s Georgetown University in February, discussed the context of police bias. “Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel. … As a result, officers often treat young black men, who may look like others they have locked up, differently from young white men walking down the same street. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and communities they serve.”
The protests in Ferguson have mixed results. On the one hand, they do focus public attention on biased policing. Aside from Justice Department studies, anecdotal evidence, even in my Washington, DC neighborhood, makes clear that police treat young black males harshly based on little more than race and suspicion. By focusing on this, the protests may produce positive changes, not just in Ferguson, but nationwide.
On the other hand, there is much to suggest the protests are counterproductive. Foundations funded by liberal billionaire George Soros finance groups who came, many by the busload, to Ferguson from all over the country to organize and join the nightly protests. Moreover, the “peaceful” protests have frequently included threats, fighting, the throwing of rocks and bottles, gun shots and, on occasion, the burning of stores – many owned by black residents of Ferguson. All of this culminated in the shooting of two police officers. My guess is that many white people, viewing the protesters’ behavior on television, quickly sink into backlash mode, an already-comfortable position for some.
Until a better path to progress comes along, expect more of the same.