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Race relations - America's tragic challenge

People protest against the death of Michael Brown

People protest against the death of Michael Brown before learning that police officer Darren Wilson, of the Ferguson, MO police department, who fatally shot teenager Michael Brown on August 9, would not be indicted by a grand jury on November 24, 2014 in New York City. The killing of Michael Brown inspired mass protests in the St. Louis suburb for over a month and has reignited conversations throughout the nation about race and police force. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

The story of America is race. And its bitter fruits are on display again in Ferguson, Missouri.
After centuries of grappling with poisonous relations between those of different skin colors, it sometimes feels that we’re no closer to bridging that gaping divide. Race is our country’s core issue, the one big thing we simply can’t resolve, and it’s at the core of so many of our lingering problems — like education, housing and, yes, justice.
St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s announcement Monday night that a grand jury decided not to indict white police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown set off a paroxysm of rage in Ferguson and protests around the country that continued yesterday. Some of the images from Ferguson were sadly familiar — buildings and police cars in flames, tear gas billowing across roiling streets, windows shattered, looters emptying stores.
We can, and do, condemn that violence. But we can, and must, understand the context in which it took place. Otherwise, we’ll remain locked in our viper’s nest of distrust and hatred.
The truth is that residents in Ferguson were not reacting only to this decision. Nor were protesters in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Oakland and Chicago, nor the marchers who threw fake blood on New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton in Times Square. We view moments like Ferguson through our personal prisms, and for many, those prisms contain events that spawned emotions that still are raw.
Millions of black Americans once drank from “colored” fountains and went to “colored” schools. Driving-while-black is still justification for being pulled over. Black men are far more likely to be arrested and sent to prison than white men. And they’re far more likely to be shot by police officers.
For many blacks, the decision was another entry in a long ledger stretching from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo to Trayvon Martin. Next up: the Staten Island grand jury looking at the Eric Garner case.
McCulloch’s announcement — after an incomprehensible preamble that succeeded only in putting nothing to rest — followed long-standing complaints from residents of mostly-black Ferguson about the way they’ve been treated by their mostly-white police force. Some of the protesting might have played to the dozens of cameras present, and some might have been opportunistic looting, but much of the rage clearly was real. And much had to do with the fact that another police officer would not face any consequences for the death of another black man.
The tension was evident even in the face of President Barack Obama, our first black president, as he pleaded for calm.
We don’t pretend to know exactly what happened on Aug. 9, or whether the grand jury’s decision was the correct one, or whether Wilson was justified in shooting Brown. Perhaps two ongoing federal Department of Justice investigations can provide more clarity.
What we do know is that once again we are reminded of our sad legacy of race relations, and that if we fail to heed this latest lesson and resolve our differences, we’ll be condemned to wallow in them forever.


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