The country is in the midst of a heated conversation about what happened in Ferguson, Mo., and the tragic death of Michael Brown. Was this a killing of a defenseless man with his hands in the air, or a brutal attack on a police officer in his cruiser? The evidence from “eye witnesses” and some physical evidence supports both narratives.

It turns out that where you stand on Ferguson is largely a matter of what your personal experience has been with law enforcement, and, as a recent Washington Post poll makes abundantly clear, whether you’re black or white. The Post found that 85 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics oppose the recent grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, while 58 percent of whites approve of that decision.

This debate about Ferguson, like so many previous and similar events, has revealed all the deeply rooted racial prejudices that exist in America today. We don’t like to talk about race, not only because it’s uncomfortable, but because it reminds us of our worst and most ancient fears. From the earliest days of human existence, when warring clans and villages constantly threatened each other, people clustered with people that looked like them, in mutual defense, and learned to distrust and even dehumanize the “others.”

That is not an instinct that will be overcome in just a few decades or even centuries.

I don’t know what happened in those fateful moments in Ferguson, although I’ve been listening to a lot of people who act as though they know exactly what happened, and who have adopted entirely the views of one side in what amounts to a parade of assumptions masquerading as facts.

We’ve been here before. When Rodney King was brutally beaten by officers in Los Angeles, it sparked a similar national soul searching. Two things, however, made that episode less about blaming and more about thinking. One was that it was all captured on videotape, so we didn’t have to decide who to believe. The other is that King survived to tell his story and to famously ask, “Can we all get along?”

In Ferguson, there is no videotape of what happened. And Brown isn’t here to tell his side of the story. So we’re left to our preferred assumptions, and little more.

It’s easy to get discouraged about just how much progress America is making on the issue of race when these agitated debates happen. Commentary on both sides has become overheated, over-simplified and inflammatory, thanks in no small part to attention-seeking politicians and news outlets such as MSNBC and the dependably incendiary Fox News.

Here’s what we do know: Racism isn’t something that was suddenly cleansed from America when we proclaimed Martin Luther King Day or elected a black president. We’ve made tremendous progress, to be sure. We do things now that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Simple things such as cheering for a New England football team composed mostly of black men each weekend without thinking about it. We have black heroes in politics, music, acting, learning and poetry, among many other fields.

Though it may not seem it at the time, there is almost always a benefit to these national conversations about race, no matter how divisive they are in the moment. That’s because human progress isn’t a straight march toward peace and harmony as much as a series of jarring confrontations with reality that cause us to think and grow.

Our history is full of these leaps forward on race. None was easy for the people who lived through them. Maine sent more farmers and laborers to fight in the Civil War, as a percentage of our population, than any northern state, and their widows and children suffered terribly because of it.

Black people, particularly in the south, faced lynching, fire hoses and attack dogs to stand for equality. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson used federal power to ensure that young black people could enter the school or college of their choice. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. moved the nation with his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Many of those people paid a terrible price for their stance.

The events in Ferguson are both personal and national tragedies, but an even greater tragedy will be in not learning from them and advancing ourselves. These events are opportunities to be reminded of King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and to take another step forward in the transformation of America toward what both Abraham Lincoln and King called us to do, which is to live out our creed: “that all men (and now, all people) are created equal.”

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.