by Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
Reactions to the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teen killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests that followed are as different as Black and White.
A new national poll by the Pew Research Center released this week shows that opinions about Brown’s shooting, the police response and the integrity and efficacy of the investigation fall starkly along racial lines. “People do react to things in different ways based on their experiences,” said Dr. Jules Harrell, professor of psychology at Howard University, about the divergent perspectives.
The survey, conducted Aug. 14-17 among 1,000 adults, found that Blacks were much more likely – by a ratio of about 4-to-1 – to say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit further discussion. By contrast, Whites, by 47 percent to 37 percent, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Similarly, while most African Americans (65 percent) say law enforcement has gone overboard in its response to the shooting’s aftermath, Whites are divided. One-third, 33 percent, agree that police have gone too far, 32 percent said the police response has been about right, while 35 percent offered no response.
Whites were also three times more likely than Blacks – 52 percent compared to 18 percent – to express some confidence in the shooting’s investigation. Roughly three-quarters of Blacks (76 percent) have little or no confidence in the investigations, with 45 percent saying they have no confidence at all.
Ironically, some experts say, the differences in opinion, particularly on the question of whether race is a factor in the Ferguson situation, is fuelled mostly by race.
“We live in a country where there are polarized views as to what the reality of race and racism is,” said Darnell Hunt, an expert on race relations and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For African Americans, who have to deal with over-policing, racial profiling and police brutality, uneven political strength, unjust justice systems, and other forms of discrimination, “racism is very real,” Hunt said.
Conversely, he added, “For most of White America, the whole bargain they struck with the election of President Barack Obama is that they get to forget race, and they get upset when it is raised.”
The problems of racial inequality and injustice are very real in Ferguson. Though the city is 67 percent African-American, its power structure is predominantly White: the mayor and police chief are White, six of the city’s seven council members are White, and a mere three of the police department’s 53-officer force are Black.
Then there are the other problems. A 2013 report showed a major racial disparity in police stops and searches, with African Americans being twice as likely as Whites to be searched and arrested. Add disproportionately high unemployment rates and other social ills, and the fact that at least three other unarmed Black males in other cities were killed within the last month, and you have a recipe for the civil unrest that has erupted in Ferguson, experts said. “The outrage is predictable,” Harrell said. “People are tired of the abominable conditions in their community.”
The heavy-handed police response – firing rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors, even children; arresting journalists and locking down parts of the city; releasing a video that allegedly shows Brown robbing a convenience store, although authorities said officer Darren Wilson did not stop Brown in response to that alleged crime – has only deepened resentment and mistrust among the residents of the St. Louis suburb.
The other side of this is a mostly-White backlash against the protests and support for the police, including Wilson, the officer who killed the unarmed 18-year-old. “The events in Ferguson, Mo. underscore how imperative it is for the White Race to band together in Brotherhood,” declared Frank Ancona, imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on Twitter.
In a longer videotaped statement posted on YouTube, Ancona further expressed support for the police actions in Ferguson. “The Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan supports the efforts of our law enforcement officers to keep law and order in that area,” he said. “Those people are acting like savage animals and that’s what they are, a bunch of savage beasts.”
On Aug. 17 a group of White demonstrators gathered outside KSDK-TV, a local station, to support Wilson and complain about what they saw as biased media coverage of the controversy. “If you do what the police tell you do – if you’re not doing anything wrong, and the cops ask you to do something, then you’re not going to have nothing to worry about,” Michael Bates, 33, told The Huffington Post.
And then there’s the other contingent who have used the reports of Brown’s alleged involvement in a robbery before his death—and even his seeming aspirations for becoming a rapper—to color the debate. “The Big Fat Ferguson Lie has come undone,” declared an article on Frontpage Magazine, a right-wing online publication. “First they told us Michael Brown was a gentle giant. That wasn’t true. He was a thug, high on pot, fresh from a robbery a few minutes before a police officer killed him on the troubled streets of Ferguson, Missouri,” the article continued, later adding, “But by far, the biggest and the fattest lie to come out of Ferguson is the idea repeated from every news channel that somehow Black people are victims of relentless violence at the hands of White people . . . That is a Big, Fat falsehood.”
Bridging such a vast racial divide seems an almost impossible task, Hunt said. “At some point, something’s going to have to give. Hopefully it is not through violence but through something more constructive,” the UCLA sociology professor said. “But, right now it’s really hard to reconcile these two competing notions about race.”