Sometimes it feels as though blacks and whites live on different planets.
Too many African-Americans are relegated to neighborhoods characterized by under-resourced schools; minimal jobs, goods and services; and governmental abandonment. The social privilege and economic prosperity enjoyed in other communities is dangled out of reach of large numbers of urban poor persons populating our American urban landscape.
These disparities translate into worlds of difference in how those on opposite sides of racial and income divides experience and perceive society. And these disparate perceptions and experiences can collide — as we saw in the tragic circumstances surrounding the recent police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, and also in the responses by the American public to these killings.
Part of the dispute police had with Mr. Brown and Mr. Garner (which fueled subsequent public responses) was related to the issue of domain.
Where there are black neighborhoods suffering endemic political and economic neglect, leaving residents mainly to fend for themselves, should it be surprising that they sometimes chafe at police who show up asserting a drive-by public authority?
The confrontation between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson began over whose street Mr. Brown was walking in. Mr. Brown lived in a context in which, apart from law enforcement, there seemed limited public claim. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson was an enforcer of laws and of public authority no matter how little public attachment there may have been to that neighborhood and to neighborhoods like it.
Neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Wilson was willing to concede dominion to the other. Both perceived the other as out-of-bounds. Nevertheless, it was Mr. Wilson whose position was bolstered by public laws, lethal weaponry and a legal system that would exonerate him for his use of deadly force in what perhaps could have been a nonlethal confrontation had there been more resort to diplomacy.
There was a similar dispute over domain in the police confrontation with Eric Garner, whose only crime was selling cigarettes to homeless persons in his neighborhood. During this confrontation, diplomacy was attempted, but by Mr. Garner, not by the police.
As Mr. Garner pleaded his case, the police interpreted his remonstrations as defiance of their authority and placed him in a chokehold that led to his death. Perhaps if there had been as much public commitment to providing Mr. Garner access to living-wage employment as there was to ensuring he paid taxes on the paltry income he derived from cigarette sales, there may have been no reason for police to be drawn into a dispute about street vending and this tragedy might never have materialized.
Nevertheless, as in the Brown case, public claim and authority were selectively asserted within a low-income urban neighborhood. And any confidence that aggrieved black communities may have retained in the legitimacy of public power was dashed by yet another bewildering grand jury verdict.
Protesters concerned about the lack of public justice in these cases refuse to allow their concerns to be dismissed or rendered invisible and have been making their case in conspicuous ways. Although a small percentage of protests have involved inappropriate violence, the vast majority have been pursued through creative forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The mostly younger-generation activists have affirmed core democratic principles about constitutional rights and responsibilities that accompany American citizenship.
Unfortunately, it is the protesters now who are viewed as out-of-bounds by many on the opposing side of a contested law-and-order divide. This underscores that the collision of worlds is not simply between individual African-Americans and individual police officers, but rather between competing conceptions of what America stands for and the means by which citizens may choose to stand for America.
American diversity lends itself to conflict, but what is at stake now (and always has been in our democracy) is how we respond to those conflicts. Do we acknowledge conflicting social interests and inequitable social structuring and seek to ameliorate those dynamics, or do we attempt to ignore the problems?
Remember, the protesters did not create the conflict; neither would the conflict be any less real in the absence of protest. Our best chance of mediating our conflicts and moving toward social healing is through an acknowledgement and airing of differences; therefore, the protesters and all those entering into constructive discourse are making an essential contribution to our democratic health. When worlds collide, there really is no sideline, so we might as well be intentional about where we stand.
Although Americans are sharply divided in their interpretations of the Brown and Garner tragedies, there are some fundamentals about which, hopefully, we all can agree. For example, no one’s individual rights are safe when public protection of rights and application of laws are inconsistently enforced. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to work harder to instill confidence in the way law enforcement executes its responsibilities, including the procedures for holding police accountable when they undermine public trust or violate the laws they’re sworn to uphold. We also must find ways to communicate better across our boundaries, thereby making exceptional or excessive measures unnecessary.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.”
R. Drew Smith is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religionand Race.