Ferguson Divides Us Less Than We Imagine

A Shift in Views on Race?

African-Americans are not alone in being horrified by the killing of Michael Brown. They are not alone in their concern over the police’s behavior. And there’s evidence that a large number of white Americans have still not fully formed their views on this tragedy. This means that how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson, Mo., in the coming weeks really matters.

What you have probably heard up to now is how racially polarized the country is in its reaction to the shooting of Brown by a police officer -- at least six times, including twice to the head. But polarization is the wrong concept here. The fact is that white Americans are clearly divided in their reactions, a sign that a broad national dialogue leading to change is possible -- if, for once, we step outside the usual boundaries of our discord.

African-Americans are not divided. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted from Aug. 14 to Aug. 17, 80 percent of blacks said the case “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.” In addition, 65 percent said that the police response had gone too far.

Among whites, 37 percent said the case raises important issues about race, while 47 percent said “the issue of race is getting more attention in this case than it deserves.” To put this in context, Pew asked a similar question in July 2013 after the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and found that only 28 percent of whites said the case raised important racial issues while 60 percent said race was getting too much attention.

This is a potentially significant shift. It’s possible that the direct involvement of the police in Brown’s death has an impact here, or that the discussion of the Martin shooting altered white opinion. Whatever the cause, we need to keep our eyes open to what’s happening.

Also noteworthy is that many whites have yet to form a view of the police response in Ferguson: 32 percent said the response has been “about right,” 33 percent said it has “gone too far” -- and an astonishing 35 percent declined to express an opinion. Many white Americans are still watching, and listening.

As for confidence in the investigations of the killing, African-Americans are far more suspicious than whites, but white views are complicated. Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research, provided a detailed breakdown of opinion. Among whites, only 14 percent had a “great deal” of confidence in the investigations, 38 percent had a “fair amount,” 22 percent had “not too much,” and 10 percent had “none at all.” Among African-Americans, fully 45 percent had no confidence, while 31 percent had not too much, 12 percent had a fair amount of confidence, and 5 percent had a great deal.

Seen one way, there is an undeniable racial divide: Whites were three times more likely than African-Americans to have significant confidence in the inquiries. On the other hand, 43 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of whites positioned themselves at one of the two mid-points on the scale.

The most striking racial difference is on interest in the story itself: Pew found that while 54 percent of non-Hispanic African-Americans were closely following the news about the shooting and the protests, only 25 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 18 percent of Hispanics said they were.

It should not surprise us that blacks and whites see appalling episodes of this sort somewhat differently, given our nation’s history with racism. But we also ought to notice that empathy does exist across racial lines, and this should give us hope.

Countries tell themselves stories, and then they start believing them. If we keep misleading ourselves into thinking we are wholly divided by incidents of this sort, we won’t even try to talk to each other, let alone look for ways to improve the situations of young African-Americans or relations between our police and our minority communities.

We talk too much about “teachable moments” and have too few of them. That’s because the concept itself can have a condescending feel, implying that some people need to be teachers and others need to be pupils. In a democracy, we are all teachers and we are all students -- and we’re obligated to search for common goals. We should join together in seeking a thorough investigation of Michael Brown’s death and remember that Martin Luther King Jr. instructed us all that we should “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”


(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Meanwhile, elsewhere in Missouri, Poplar Bluff City Councilman Peter Tinsley posted a photo of a loincloth-clad Barack Obama with a bone in his nose and other racist material on Facebook. Making the inevitable forced apology, he blamed his offense on the fact that he's a Republican.


“I am the attorney general of the United States,” Holder told a group of local college students. “But I am also a black man.”
Any chance that a white policeman will get a fair hearing?
While  the press and other rabble rousers are focusing on what Officer Wilson knew or did not know, both Mr Brown and his sidekick "Hands up Don't shoot" buddy knew that they had just committed a crime and the buddy reportedly had a warrant out for his arrest when Officer Brown attempted to stop them from walking down the middle of the street. This knowledge may have led to the initial confrontation between Officer Wilson and Brown and Brown's ultimate death.

Headlines for last weekend in New York City and Chicago

15 shot in NYC within 8 hours, 2 dead      
Posted: Aug 17, 2014 7:39 PM EDT Updated: Aug 18, 2014

Seven Killed, 29 Wounded In City Shootings Over Weekend
August 18, 2014 6:10 AM

And what is reported in the national media when a black officer kills an unarmed white/Hispanic?
Little or nothing!

Where are the outrage and the riots? Where are Jackson and Sharpton? Where are Obama and Holder?
Where is Dionne on these facts? Where is the national press?

Not to sound like a naysayer here, because I agree that we do need to have a "conversation about race", but a good friend who is a retired FBI agent told me that another agent ( who he doesn't know) told him hat there was a struggle between the young man and the policeofficer in the squad car. The yung man escaped the car and the officer gave chase only to have the young man turn and charge at him. The shots fired by the officer my friend tells me, whether 1 or 6 is common to situations like this, and not an indication of an intent to kill. Also, he has no record of prior abuse of power. I don't honestly know whether this is a true account or not, but it is obvious that you will never hear this version from the likes of Reverend Sharpton( RememberTawana Brawley ?) As I said, we need a national convesation about race, but  please let'sget thefacts in this case straigtened out befor we try it in the media.

Shooting to kill at an alleged perp 20 feet away for alleged shop lifting, as the two St Louis area  videos show,  calls for police to use at least a warning shot, Shooting at 20-25 feet shows up fear that is unbecoming to a peace officer.

WHEN PEW started their research on this matter did they inform people that the so called vulnerable Brown was involved in a recorded robbery? THAT young mr. Brown used his 300 lb frame to threaten the store owner so that he could steal items from him?

 IF you are going to ask people for comment, then inform them of everything involved in this matter.

 IT is bad enough that his mother said the film was photoshopped.ANOTHER fine example of a parent denying that one of their offsprings is involved in a commission of a crime.

 PEW worried about race relations, but they did not ask why black does  not riot when another black kills another black. WHERE is the naacp when this happens? NOWHERE to be seen.

QUIT killing yourselves before you tell others to quit killing you.

 AMERICA is a great country made up of many different ethnic groups. BUT you do not see Polish people rioting when a Pol is killed.NOR SWEDES OR ANYONE ONE ELSE.

 THERE are a great many black master craftsmen out there. THEY worked hard to get there.

THEIR contributions to society worldwide have saved lives, they have protected flyers in WWII by losing their lives. THEY continue to serve to protect our freedom. THEY, MOST OF ALL, DESERVE RESPECT AND GRATITUDE FROM OUR COUNTRY FOR ALL THAT THEY HAVE AND CONTINUE TO DO.

 THIS current problem is being escalated by outsiders because they want attention by violence not by achievement.

 THERE are people in Ferguson that see through the guise and are trying to halt the violence. GOOD LUCK TO THEM. AND THANK YOU FOR YOUR COURAGE TO STAND UP AGAINST THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT INVOLVED IN THE UPHEAVEL.

 E J Dionne do you really think that race does not divide us.????. just read the com box after your post...

Maybe Mr Adamcheck never saw Poles and Swedes "riot' {I say protest] but we NYC Irish have a long and proud history of causing a ruckus when we see injustice. {from the Civil War on..].

Mr Adamcheck maybe you only see "great many black master craftsmen out there' How about the seeing many high level Blacks in Politics, law, sports and literature and entertainment..

Your comment was simular to what the Irish heard in 19th century NYC.. "you hod carriers are building us a great city.'.   

Any post in bold and caps should be ignored and promptly deleted.

@ Joe Ambrosino

"a good friend who is a retired FBI agent told me that another agent ( who he doesn't know) told him hat there was a struggle between the young man and the policeofficer in the squad car."

Really, Joe, only Fox would report fourth-hand information--from unnamed individuals at that--and expect anyone to believe it.

I am disappointed that Commonweal somehow with its columnist and then the comments attached justifies the people who say 'I feel' over the people who say 'I think'.  That is the justification of 'emotion' and 'demagoguery' over the 'rule of law' and the establishment of the true facts.  And that is not worthy of this journal. 

So you are going with the third hand (or fourth hand)  anonymous account of events over the several actual eye witnesses version backed up by the autopsy. By all means, please let's get the facts in this case straigtened out befor we try it in the media.

And what is reported in the national media when a black officer kills an unarmed white/Hispanic?
Little or nothing!


I think I speek for all conservatives when I say the cops were right to shoot that thug animal because he was an ex-con wanted for a violaton of parole. Have you donated to the cop's defense fund yet?

I for one, oppose the killing of all unarmed people.

I find it hard to understand those who still claim "race does not divide us." The statistics presented in this article show apparent differences in the opinions of African Americans and the opinions in Whites. While we see "improvements" in the number since the Trayvon Martin case, I sincerely worry we'll never close that gap. The fact that a major racial case seems to show up every few months shows our society is not as inclusive as we think. I for one, think the officer was completely out of line shooting an unarmed person. Regardless of ethnicity, too many people are lashed out against these days. The talk about race is ridiculious. While I deem it necessary because of how apparently racist so many people are, I think the best way to get rid of racism would be to stop talking about it. But, when somehting like this happens that seems impossible. The racial divide gap has been closing for so many years, but we don't need cases like this to open it again and go back on all our progess. 

I think the divide we are seeing over Ferguson is about more than just racism on a social level. After all, there are plenty of white people who also think the death of Michael Brown was unwarranted. This is about racism on an institutionalized level. Police officers using extreme amounts of force on citizens is not proportionate in a racial sense. There are far more black people in prison than there are white people. Rates of arrests for blacks are higher. Neighborhoods that see the largest police presence? Black neighborhoods. The idea that policemen are consciously (or maybe unconsciously in some cases) racial profiling people further shows how this is a serious problem in our society. Therefore the issue is not whites and blacks not siding with each other, but with institutions taking a step back and realizing that the problem of institutionalized racism is real and should be taken seriously. 

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