The prolonged spasm of fury that followed the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., appears to have subsided. The actions of the Ferguson police department — allowing Brown's body to remain in the street for four hours after his death, withholding for days the name of the officer accused of shooting him, deploying military weaponry and strong-arm tactics against protesters and journalists — helped to keep the unrest at a rolling boil for nearly two weeks.
But the protests were initially sparked by outrage at the shooting itself — at the death of yet another African-American man at the hands of yet another white cop, but also at the knowledge that most white Americans would respond to the news with a shrug of indifference.
In reflecting on that perilous gap between outrage and indifference, I've been thrown back on my own memories of growing up as a white kid in New York City during the 1970s — a time of blackouts and looting and filthy, trash-strewn parks and streets — and my return to the city as a graduate student in 1991, a year when more than 2,200 people were murdered in the five boroughs, roughly five times the current homicide rate. It was normal to feel frightened in those days. That fear helped to turn me into a neocon.
Nine years later, I returned to the city once again, this time to take a job as a speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the man I credited with turning New York around, especially when it came to crime. There were protests then, too, along with accusations of police brutality against African-Americans. The mayor's stock response to such charges was to assert that law-abiding residents of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant were just as eager for public safety as those in Park Slope and the Upper West Side.
Implication: The protesters were troublemakers who didn't truly speak for the communities they claimed to represent.
I still think Giuliani's crime-fighting policies (most of which were continued and expanded by Michael Bloomberg) did a lot of good for New Yorkers of all races.
But I now also think that the sweeping dismissal of black complaints about police injustice was an expression of a very old and very serious American problem: the tendency of whites to deny the need to see the world through African-American eyes.
Polls have told us time and time again — including post-Ferguson — that blacks and whites differ dramatically in how they view the police. Blacks overwhelmingly believe that the police use deadly force against black suspects with far less gravity and restraint than they do against whites, while whites tend to presume that cops do their jobs fairly.
This is a big deal, and one that should trouble white Americans far more than it does — because it means that whites view armed agents of the government as their allies, while African-Americans see those same agents as enemies arrayed against them, like the occupying army of a hostile power. (The Ferguson police department's decision to don military camouflage and deploy heavy weaponry against protesters made this more explicit than usual. But the dynamic is always there, even without the toys.)
Police confront demonstrators in Ferguson on August 15. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Why would blacks view things this way?
Maybe it's the poisonous, humiliating, and violent ways that (often white) cops interact with blacks in inner-city neighborhoods.
Maybe it's the long history of white Americans tolerating (and encouraging) the creation of impoverished African-American ghettos.
Maybe it's the willingness of white Americans to allow so many black children to languish in underfunded, crumbling, rat- and roach-infested public schools.
Maybe it's the countless times black men are subjected to search, detention, arrest, and other humiliations simply because they "fit the description" of a criminal — or are merely "driving while black" through an upper-class, mostly white neighborhood.
Maybe it's the lack of outrage among whites when they hear (if they hear) that a white police officer has shot an unarmed black boy or man in a blighted neighborhood most whites will never see or experience firsthand.
Maybe it's the distinctive form of indifference expressed by people like David Goad, a 64-year-old white man who lives near Ferguson and tells The New York Times with regard to the protests, "They always want to stir up trouble, the blacks... I grew up around blacks, so I know how they are."
One example is a single case. Several examples make a trend. All of them together add up to a way of life — the American way of life, still shot through with inequality and injustice, still warped at a deep social and psychological level by persistent patterns of white supremacy.
Even in 2014, even with a twice-elected black man in the White House, this is how many African-Americans justifiably see their country — as a place in which the white majority consistently shows that it still does not believe in the innate and equal dignity of black people.
Until that changes — or rather, until whites at least begin to admit its truth and the need to work for change — every black man gunned down by a cop will threaten to spark a conflagration in which blacks cry forth in righteous rage to white America: "See what you've done? Behold the evidence of how little our lives mean to you!"
In the wake of Ferguson, what America needs isn't so much a national dialogue on race. What we need, instead, is vision — a commitment on the part of whites to seeing life, and death, from the other side of the color line.