An honest dialogue on race


I have chosen not to comment on the case of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson until now, in part, because the case was under investigation, and I find that in such cases, it is wiser not to comment until all facts come to light in order not to exacerbate the situation.

While there were many things about this case that made me cringe, one of the things that disturbed me most was how it seemed, once again, that our nation was torn in half, and observers were dichotomized as either sympathizers of Michael Brown and thereby sympathetic to the racial issues, or those who sided with Officer Wilson and defended him.

Now, we see the grand jury of Ferguson findings, which included three black jurors, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s finding that Officer Wilson was not guilty of criminality, including racial profiling or targeting.

In fact, the fundamental detail that led to racially-motivated protests nation-wide asserting that Michael Brown had his hands up saying don’t shoot, while Officer Wilson shot him in the back, was a complete lie.

Think back for a moment. We saw, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” at football games, music award shows, and even on the floors of Congress. It became the mantra of racism being alive and well in America. Yet, it was based on a lie.

So, if the incident itself was a lie, could one conclude that racism in America is a lie? According to Holder, absolutely not. He stated that although the incident in question did not violate any federal laws, there were practices within the Ferguson police department that led to racial tensions and bias in the community.

However, this inference was not made because police officers had higher incidences of violence, false accusations, or biased hiring practices against blacks. Rather, this inference was made because blacks were statistically over-represented in traffic stops and fines.

Ironically, when one looks at the surrounding counties with higher representation of black police officers, there were not statistically lower percentages of traffic incidences and fines.

Additionally, some commentators have conflated the higher percentages of incarcerations of blacks as further evidence of racial bias into the discussion.

The fundamental question becomes: if there are statistical differences based on race, does this immediately mean that law enforcement is fundamentally and systemically racists?

In all honesty, I would have to say no, not necessarily. A correlation is not a cause. If we cannot cite specific behaviors, laws, or practices that are inherently pejorative based on race, we should not charge racism. Neither should we project racism into the situation by passing judgment on those involved and saying racism exists in the hearts. For, without words or actions, how can anyone know what truly lies in the heart of another?

If we were to truly have an honest dialog on race, rather than project racism into every incident involving people of different races, we should first isolate the facts of the incident rather than project our personal, racial experiences into the situation.

Additionally, if we do find there to be impropriety on either racial side, we have to consider other potential causes of the injustice such as the disregard for authority in our society, the hemorrhaging of American families, and the glorification of “bad boy” behavior in our popular culture.

One cannot deny that these factors probably have an equal, if not greater influence on the behavior or perceptions of those within our country, than the historical vestiges of slavery.

Rather than sensationalize situations like Ferguson and divide our nation along racial lines, I would like for us to be honest about what’s really going on in our culture and with our young people, then commit to changing it.

Until we rightly identify all potential causes of racial disparities — not just the self-serving ones — only then can we truly have an honest dialog about race.

Maybe then, many decent and hard-working blacks won’t be continually characterized as potential victims, or criminals, and maybe many decent and hard-working whites won’t come to feel like they are closet racists if they question the validity of any racial incident.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]