Confronting Racial Tensions At Home

The flag of the United States of America
The flag of the United States of America

The shocking, saddening, and sickening Facebook video of Philando Castile being fatally shot by police outside St. Paul, Minnesota, is a grim reminder that something deep is ailing America. Coming on the heels of another high-profile police shooting, in Baton Rouge, where a white officer killed a black man, Alton Sterling, the latest incident causes all of us to pause and ask: Why? Why is there such deep racial division and hostility in communities across the country--and what can citizens who care about America do to lessen the tension that is tearing at the fabric of our nation.

Now there will be some who say-- "don't jump to conclusions." Maybe these cases have nothing to do with race relations. And yes, it is important to underscore that all the facts in both cases are still coming to light. As with many videos and social media accounts, context matters. We are yet to see all the pieces of the puzzle.

But regardless of how the facts unfold, the truth is that the underlying facts should have been uncovered in a police investigation or a court of law with both victims present to testify--not dead on the street. (The second issue--a separate article--is about how the presence of guns, lawful or not--end up leading to violence and death.)

For me, what Minnesota and Baton Rouge call to the forefront is the pervasive, nagging, gnawing sense many of have that despite decades of civil rights legislation and progress on equality, our communities and institutions remain wracked by racial intolerance and hostility that often lead to an atmosphere of shoot first, ask questions later. We know it, but we are not sure how to confront it. And we find ourselves trying to sort out conflicting emotions about why, in 2016, we are still asking these questions.

Yes, America has made progress on race. Yet there is no getting around the fact that despite having elected an African-American president, we are not, as a country, as far along on racial relations as we should be. President Obama has said it, himself, and it is why in a statement Thursday, he said "all Americans should be deeply troubled" by the two shootings. He added that "all Americans should recognize the anger, frustration, and grief that so many Americans are feeling -- feelings that are being expressed in peaceful protests and vigils." The President didn't say that the anger and frustration grows out of racism. But we know what he means. We understand what he is talking about. Yet, in my view, we need to call it out and bring it up as a part of our national conversation.

It is hard to talk about or write about racism. It is so big, so broad, so deep, and so destructive. It is seemingly so pervasive and omnipotent as to defy logic. Most baffling is how often racism is discussed in relation to one event or one profession or one sector of society, as opposed to the overall societal ill. (Notice how news reports often tackle racism in response to events within, for example, an education system or within a police department as if racism can be cordoned off. Rarely do we see the connections between events that may happen in disparate places like a university or a health care system.)

There is a certain irony about the inability of America to deal with its race issues. Paradoxically, we are very good at confronting conflicts driven by race or ethnicity when it happens outside our borders. We have whole departments like the State Department and USAID (the United States Agency for International Development) that specialize in dealing with religious and ethnic tensions overseas. We have foundations and non-governmental industries devoted to understanding global conflict and its ramifications. But when it happens at home, we seem stumped.

The time has come for a national conversation about race--a conversation that involves more than one community, and more than one news event. We can't preach tolerance around the world and not practice it at home. Good people in this country are increasingly aware of bad outcomes from the failure to confront race relations. We want to do better. We must do better. We can do better.

At the end of the day, we don't want issues resolved through violence. Nor do we want to see citizens die or police officers die in the line of duty. But regardless of the specifics of each case, there is an atmosphere of distrust, division, and yes, racism, pervading many layers of society. And we need to have a conversation around why the atmosphere is so poisonous, and what to do about it.

Tara D. Sonenshine has served in many peacebuilding capacities in and outside government. She lectures at George Washington University.