The dispiriting saga from Ferguson, Mo., provides another tragic window on decades of indifference to economic disparities — and on those fatal split seconds when police see black men as violent criminals rather than citizens. Ferguson raises anew the question of how many more unarmed black men must die before the nation declares this an all-American problem.
As unjustified as the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown was, and as much as it has dominated the news, white America has barely shrugged its shoulders. Evidence of that indifference came Monday when the Pew Research Center released a national survey of attitudes about Ferguson and its meaning.
Asked whether the shooting in Ferguson “raises important issues about race,” 80 percent of black respondents said it did. But only 37 percent of white respondents agreed. And while two-thirds of black people said the police response in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting went too far, only a third of white people thought so. Only a quarter of white respondents said they had followed the story closely, compared to half of black respondents.
This is similar to Pew’s survey about the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman in a Florida gated community in February 2012. Although 78 percent of black Americans said the Martin shooting raised important issues about race, only 28 percent of white Americans thought so.
Thus the American conscience remains at bottom unperturbed, whether the name is Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, the unarmed New York City man choked to death last month by police after allegedly peddling untaxed cigarettes. It matters not that unarmed Amadou Diallo died of 19 New York City police bullets in 1999 or that unarmed Sean Bell died in a hail of 50 police bullets in Queens in 2006.
America remains unmoved to end these atrocities, despite unarmed Timothy Thomas dying from Cincinnati police fire in 2001 or unarmed Oscar Grant being killed by BART police in Oakland in 2009. Although Boston has not recently drawn national attention for police brutality, it cannot be forgotten how Accelyne Williams was literally scared into a fatal heart attack 20 years ago by a 13-member SWAT team. They burst into the wrong Dorchester apartment looking for drugs and handcuffed the 75-year-old retired black minister, who died 45 minutes later.
For all their valor, police too often remain harsh emissaries of society’s soft indifference, agents more of control than concern. It has been 22 years since the late Rodney King, the most famous modern unarmed black victim of police brutality, asked the wistful question, “Can we all get along?” The answer is that this nation refuses even to attempt to understand itself, let alone to try to get along.
White Americans take a stunningly Pollyannaish view of inequity, despite worsening income and wealth gaps, a black male unemployment rate double that of white males, continuing job discrimination, disparate prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and Obama-era efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures to limit voting rights. In a Pew survey on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, only 13 to 16 percent of white Americans saw racial unfairness in workplaces, schools, health care, restaurants, or elections.
When the general white population sees no disparities, it is easy to see how the police, in turn, do not see full human beings in their crosshairs, especially when departments are disproportionately white. USA Today last week reported that nearly two black people a week were killed by white police in a seven-year period ending in 2012, based on its analysis of available FBI data on killings ruled justifiable homicides. Nearly one in five of the black people killed by police were under 21, while only one in 11 white people killed by police were that young.
In recent years, video-game experiments have demonstrated that police — and even college students — are quicker to shoot black people on the stereotyped perception they are more dangerous. Those stereotypes can be overcome with training, but in a telephone interview, one of the leading psychologists in this field, Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado, said the Ferguson tragedy is a reminder that “very few are doing this kind of training.”
Very few do this kind of training because America has not yet retrained itself on its racial attitudes. There is no sign yet that Ferguson is inspiring national reflection.