I don’t have the knowledge of the evidence or the legal background to know whether the decision not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown represents justice. But after making the mistake of looking at my Facebook feed, I am saddened and discouraged by the reaction to the decision. Certainly, I feel bad for the family of Mr. Brown, but it’s more than that.
Lee Atwater, a political strategist, once said,
Perception is reality.
Yesterday’s decision and the reactions once again make it clear once again that there are two distinct perceptions and two distinct realities of life in the U.S.
One reality is the America where economic opportunity is only limited by a person’s willingness to get an education and work hard. In this reality, people who need government assistance are lazy indigents and need to just get a job. It’s an America of pleasant suburbs, good schools, dual incomes and the potential for upward mobility. In this America, justice is applied equally and fairly. A young black male shouldn’t have been walking in the middle of the street or shouldn’t have had his hands in his pockets or shouldn’t have made an aggressive move.
The other reality is the America where jobs are scarce and businesses are closed. Even those with jobs frequently work part-time and for minimum wage, living in poverty and using food stamps to feed their children. Neighborhoods are in decay, violence is endemic and hopelessness is prevalent. Mothers pray for their children to escape the bullets and gangs on their way home from school. Young black males with no jobs, no role models and no future wander the streets, wondering when they will next be harassed by the cops.
The rare person who does bridge the gap between the realities frequently lives under a cloud of suspicion. Mothers leave the park when he arrives, women cross the street when he comes down the sidewalk or neighbors assume that he’s the gardener. Police pull him over in his own neighborhood to search his car under the pretext of the license plate bulb not working properly.
We need to build a bridge between the two realities. And more than anything, we need empathy. If every white American were to wear the skin of a young black male or a poor, single mother for a week or even a day, I suspect our views, our reactions and our proposed solutions would be different.
Until we acknowledge that there are two realities, the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed is destined to repeat itself in another city. Until we have empathy for our neighbors who live in the other reality and commit to changing it, we will be complicit in maintaining the divide.