Why it is so important for white Americans to listen to the protesters in Missouri

We may never know the complete truth about the August shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or 18-year-old Vonderrit D. Myers in St. Louis last week. If we did, we might find that both teenagers were killed unjustly. We could also learn that the police officers were justified in their actions.

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For many invested in the controversies, it quickly becomes an article of faith that their side is the only one that is justified.

Anytime a life is taken it is tragic and emotions will understandably run high. But reasonable people should examine both sides of these types of controversies before drawing any sort of definitive conclusions.

But you do have to look at both sides. This is something many whites have been unwilling to do.

Black Americans have complained for some time about racial disparities in police shootings, abuse at the hands of law enforcement, and in how the law is applied. Last week, a study of the use of deadly force used by police published by the Pulitzer Prize winning independent news site ProPublica revealed, “The outlet notes its findings ‘certainly seems to support what has been an article of faith in the African-American community for decades: Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates when set against the rest of the American population.”

A common response by many whites to this kind of information is that the crime rate is higher in black communities and therefore the incidents of police shooting blacks will inevitably be higher.

But even if this is your position, to leave it there would only be looking at one side.

Might it also be true that the high frequency of police shooting young black men could potentially create an environment where police sometimes shoot African Americans even when it is not justified? Might this happen with a relative frequency in which the offending officers do not suffer any repercussions?

If reasonable people can concede that this might be happeninghow often does it happen? And is this not a valid and important concern of black communities?

Is it not something worth marching in the streets over?

Might it also be true that that some of the laws young black men are perceived as breaking at a higher rate than whites—a logic that some whites, consciously or subconsciously, have used to dismiss racial disparities in police shootings—are also laws that whites break at about the same rate, without white communities receiving the same focus or treatment from law enforcement as black communities?

Are more whites willing to consider that this even a possibility?

Are they willing to consider both sides?

Time and again, citizens in Ferguson and St. Louis have seen young black men abused in ways that would not be tolerated if the police treated suburban whites kids in the same manner. This behavior usually goes unnoticed by the outside world and when blacks speak out they are routinely dismissed as “playing the victim.” When mostly black crowds march in the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis, some say the protesters are doing nothing but stoking racial division.

But are they really stoking it? Or just desperate to fix it?

If white critics of the protesters were in their shoes, had experienced what they’ve experienced, seen what they have seen, what would they do?

Trapped in such an environment, why wouldn’t black protesters in Missouri believe the police, their local government, the media and everyone outside their communities see black lives as cheap and more disposable than those of white Americans?

How many white Americans, who in dismissing black complaints as nothing more than victimhood or race-baiting, end up reinforcing these perceptions even when that isn’t their intention? How many whites develop an attitude that blacks are simply doing-it-to-themselves?

The primary point of the unrest in Ferguson and the protests in St. Louis is not that Michael Brown and Vonderrit D. Myers are saints or that officer Darren Wilson is evil—when emotions are high it is understandable that those most affected quickly resort to presenting these situations and the players in the most extreme dichotomies imaginable.

No, the point is that despite the details of who was right or wrong in these particular situations, black Americans endure a harshly different reality than what most white Americans experience when it comes to law enforcement. For the first time in a long time, black Americans feel like they have a national opportunity to be heard, to affect change and, hopefully, improve their lives.

White Americans do not have to approve of or agree with everything the protesters in Ferguson and St. Louis are saying or doing. But more should be willing to hear their side.

More should finally acknowledge that they have a side.

Whites who might say black Americans should also be willing to hear other perspective are not wrong, but must understand that many blacks have felt like no one has listened to them in any serious manner. Young black men dying at the hands of police has been happening for a long time and few if any authority figures have tried to do something about it.

It’s intellectually dishonest for whites to judge the black protesters seen marching in the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis without some sort of acknowledgment of the systemic injustice that continues to be part of the black experience in the United States.

In my experience, the mere suggestion that blacks might be suffering an inordinate amount, particularly for reasons beyond black people’s control, irritates many whites. Many whites find it easy to blame blacks but are extremely averse to even considering that some of their grievances might be justified.

If we’re going to make this country better, we’re all going to have to start listening to each other and try to be more understanding in ways we haven’t before. For too long, particularly when these types of controversies arise, it has been blacks talking to each other and whites talking to each other but not enough of both talking to one another. We probably need more listening than talking.

Black Americans have a pressing story to tell, in Ferguson, St. Louis and beyond. And it is tragic. Let’s hear it.

What do you think?

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