We Americans need to talk about race relations.
Not soon — now!
That’s the pulsating response theme from the video-recorded killings of two African American men by uniformed policemen in Louisiana and Minnesota.
And it became the call to action following the senseless July 7 assassinations of five Dallas policemen by a black man apparently possessed by the gripping senses of hate and revenge.
It’s time, folks. Let’s do it.
It’ll be awkward and certainly difficult, but we’ll figure it out. Let it begin now, transparently, in every home, every office, every church, every city council meeting, in every heart and soul.
And let it be guided by the DNA of American humanity. We value fairness. We value mutual respect. And we thrive when mutual empathy bonds us.
North Charleston’s hometown hero U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has been emotive and resolute. In floor speeches, he has aired his personal anguish about police encounters: “I have felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, frustration, sadness and humiliation that come with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being yourself.”
Scott said he was stopped by Charleston area police seven times in a single year. And that pattern followed him to Capitol Hill where Capitol Police have challenged his entry into congressional buildings.
Scott would point to his “member-of-Congress” lapel pin. “ ‘The pin I recognize. You, I don’t,’ ” a Capitol policeman once told him as he demanded confirming identification.
“Our nation is in desperate need of a family conversation,” Scott declared after the Dallas shootings. “The American family needs to sit down and talk about things we have not thought about in a while.”
He added, “We don’t need a Republican conversation on this topic. We don’t need a Democratic conversation on this topic. We need an American conversation that encompasses the entire American family.”
That message was echoed with gripping eloquence last week by Dr. Brian H. Williams, a trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, on duty when wounded police officers began to arrive in his emergency room.
“I understand the anger and the frustration and the distrust of law enforcement, but they are not the problem,” the African American doctor said. “The problem is the lack of open discussions about the impact of race relations in this country. Black men are dying and being forgotten. People are retaliating against the people who are sworn to defend us. We have to come together, and end all this.”
Dr. Williams described his frustration that he and his colleagues were not able to save more policemen that horrible night — but he also talked candidly about his own personal problems with police profiling and harassing him.
His sobering message to police: “I defend you, I will care for you — but I still fear you.”
Dr. Williams said caring for the wounded Dallas cops was “a turning point in my life.”
It could be a turning point in the difficult processes of repairing America’s race relations, too.
It should be. Can we doubt that Sen. Scott and Dr. Williams are giving voice to the fear and anxiety of too many black Americans — an inherent fear of how such police “experiences” will end?
But the concept of citizens fearing police will surprise most policemen who see themselves as anything but racially-motivated. And it will disappoint most law enforcement officers who see themselves as honorable guardians of the communities they serve.
And it should worry the majority of us Americans who have never feared a cop.
A few days ago, with my 23-year-old son at my side, I asked a young African American man working as a sales associate if he ever feared police as he drove from his Summerville home to his Northwoods Mall workplace.
“Always, sir,” he replied softly.
I then asked my son the same question. “Never,” he said.
Black men fearing cops. Cops fearing black men?
Are we dealing with a void of mutual empathy that has festered for generations, in defiance of the American grail that Americans care about each other — and if there’s a problem solve it?
Dr. Williams senses the shadows of providence. He was on duty that horrible night only after a last-minute shift change. “I wonder if this was the reason that in the midst of all this racial tension and dead black men and violence against cops — I am the one put there to experience this and tell my story and get the conversation started?”
Providence, so be it. Sen. Scott and Dr. Williams might consider a national tour to boot a dialogue on mutual empathy and race, one that will be tractable with bottom-up solutions, one that will rise above politics and personality clashes, one that will build on a simple factor of American character — we care.
The quality of race relations ought to be an especially important issue for us older Americans. We were born into a society largely defined by race. Childhood was racially confusing and uncomfortable for us — and unimaginably challenging for our black friends.
But as we moved through the decades, we thought civil rights laws and school integration and equal opportunity mandates would put race relations on a better path toward harmony. And we were wrong.
We now understand with some clarity that good race relations and mutual ‘”Americanism” are not merely legal puzzles — they’re human equations. The social and economic disconnects are readily documented. And most of the related challenges defy simple solutions.
I like Dr. Williams’ suggestion of “providence” and Sen.Scott’s concept of an “entire” American family conversation. Let the process begin.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston City Councilman. He can be reached at email@example.com.