“How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?" asks Bob Dylan in “Blowin' in the Wind.”
Michael Brown is dead. Why? He is now forever enshrined on the, seemingly, never ending and shameful list of young black males killed — for no apparent reason other than their skin color. Why? Main Street, once again, bears witness to America’s "peculiar problem" of race. Yet this time the reaction by local blacks was both swift and angry. After decades of quiet resignation to their fate, docile-appearing black citizens of Ferguson, Mo., erupted. Why? It bears repeating that their reaction was both swift and angry — not, initially, violent. However, the reaction by local, predominantly white, law enforcement was an overreaction. The right to peacefully assemble was viewed as a threat. Why?
The Ferguson demonstrators want to know why an unarmed young man was gunned down in broad daylight, and they want to firmly assert that such killings must cease. Why isn’t all of America outraged? Why do some Americans believe Michael did something to deserve being shot six times? Why do others feel more sympathy for the white policeman, Darren Wilson? Why does a recent Pew Research poll “show that whites and blacks — as well as Democrats and Republicans — have different views over the unrest in Ferguson”?
“Does the shooting of Michael Brown raise important issues about race that need to be discussed?” In the poll, 80 percent of blacks, 37 percent of whites, 68 percent of Democrats, and 22 percent of Republicans said yes. So it appears that a clear majority of 63 percent of whites, and an equally disturbing 78 percent of Republicans, feel that this horrible event does not suggest a need to talk about race relations.
While these percentages reveal what we suspected, one has to go underneath the numbers to understand how twisted and wicked a problem race relations has become in America. Too many whites and blacks have been conditioned by the culture of racism to be numbed by the snuffing out of young black lives. A glaring example is the scourge of addictive drugs that decimated black lives for decades. Until these drugs seeped into white communities, users were viewed as moral reprobates, criminals and junkies. Now, as these same drugs ravage parts of the white community, the paradigm has shifted and the users are victims in need of treatment — not jail. Why?
Another example that heightens the contradictions: “After partying next door,” a group of white "young adults" from a gated community in Coral Gables, Fla., entered the locked home of NBA superstar Ray Allen at 2:30 a.m. to see “what it looked like.” Ray was out of town, but his wife and four children were home. The security system was inoperable due to construction. Several intruders with flashlights awakened Mrs. Allen when they appeared in her bedroom. She screamed and the intruders fled. The police chose not to bring charges, characterizing the forced entry as a “silly prank.”
If these “young adults” had been black males, the police reaction would have been measurably different. Why does the color of our skin evoke such violent reactions to our presence — even in our own communities? Some pundits argue that hip-hop dress signals to the police that our young men are dangerous. In other words, the way they are dressed somehow justifies the outsized and often lethal reaction to them. This argument is about as crazy and specious as saying that the way a woman is dressed justifies rape.
No, there is something much deeper going on. Simply put, the loss of black life does not seem to cause the same visceral reaction as even the supposed threatened loss of a white life. The Ferguson police chief hesitated to give the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, ostensibly to protect the officer from death threats. Yet it was Wilson who decided in a deadly instant to become jury, judge and executioner. Who was Wilson protecting? Who was protecting Michael Brown? Enough is enough. No doubt being a beat cop is tough and challenging. However, being young, black and male is even more risky and challenging. With a population that is 67 percent black, Ferguson's mayor, police chief and school board (one Hispanic) are all white. Even more jarring, the Ferguson Police Department has 53 officers and an astounding 3 are black. Would more black officers solve the problem? No. As one commentator put it, “while a more diverse police force would be beneficial, what we really need is better officers” — black or white.
Ferguson feels like an occupied zone, not unlike much of black America. The police function more like military occupiers who live outside of the zone and commute to their duty stations. The occupiers stop, frisk, humiliate and too often kill without the constitutional guarantee of due process. These militarized zones are not easy to keep orderly. There are vicious local gangs too. The law-abiding, hardworking, God-fearing black citizens trapped in the zones find themselves between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” Every day they must answer the question: Who is most dangerous — the street gangs or the police? Both are heavily armed. Too often when either group fires, innocent bystanders are victims.
An op-ed column in The New York Times noted that Ferguson gets nearly a quarter of its revenue from fees, and blacks are disproportionately cited for traffic violations. This is evidence of what I call the “race tax” — the ongoing penalty for being black and mobile, whether walking or driving. In addition to paying sales and property taxes, Ferguson's blacks also pay the “race tax" as a result of being 86 percent of traffic stops and 93 percent of arrests last year.
Given the reality, it is time to jerk our collective heads out of the sand of denial and excuses. We, as Americans, need to wake up from the twilight zone of a so-called colorblind society. Race remains the one issue that can take this great country down. Now is the time to initiate a national dialogue on race. We must borrow from the wisdom of the great Nelson Mandela and inaugurate an era of “truth and reconciliation.” After talking to each other, we must act together with each other. To fulfill our divine destiny, we must, as a nation, finally answer Bob Dylan’s poignant question and say all of our roads are safe for any man to walk down. Why not!?
President and founder of The Salter Consulting Group in Chicago, Kwame S. Salter years ago served as director of the UW-Madison’s Afro-American Race Relations and Cultural Center, and also served three terms on the Madison School Board in the 1970s and 1980s. As director of the Dane County Parent Council Inc., he oversaw the growth of the area's Head Start Program. He left Madison in 1995 for a job with Kraft Foods in Illinois.