Correcting misperceptions about the police and race

Police and protesters clash on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, at a protest sparked by the death of Michael Brown, who was killed by police Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

I'd like to offer a few thoughts on Frank Wooten's recent column on "Perception and Reality on Police and Race."

I found common ground with Mr. Wooten on some of what he said about the police involved deaths of Denzel Curnell in Charleston, S.C., and of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Mr. Wooten rightfully noted America's racial disparity in police perceptions and noted that there's a racial inequity in law enforcement that can't be explained away by asserting that police only go after those that they see as "black thugs." Most black men - including my sons and I - can recount negative encounters with police officers who judge people by the color of their skin.

My thoughts and Mr. Wooten's, however, diverge in a few ways that deserve comment. Mr. Wooten noted that the police involved deaths of Michael Brown and Denzell Curnell - black men - resulted in protests, questions, demonstrations and media coverage while the police involved death of Andrew Gaynier - a white man in Dallas, Texas - led to no protests, questions or demonstrations and only generated minimal media coverage.

A more appropriate comparison would have been the police involved deaths of Mr. Gaynier and of Kajieme Powell - a black man in St. Louis, Mo. - shortly after the death of Michael Brown. Mr. Powell's death also generated minimal protests, questions, demonstrations and media coverage, perhaps because the circumstances of Mr. Gaynier's death and Mr. Powell's death were similar. Both of them allegedly rushed at police officers in a threatening manner and verbally invited the police to shoot them.

In Mr. Brown's case, he was apparently gunned down when he had his hands in the air in a position of surrender and in Mr. Curnell's case, he was confronted by a Charleston Police officer in what appears to be an instance of "racial profiling," and died after a physical confrontation initiated by that officer.

It's also worth noting that a 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that the death rate due to legal intervention was three times higher for blacks than for whites in the years 1988 to 1997. That study shows that the probability of black men dying at the hands of law enforcement is not simply a perception, but a reality.

The compelling point about perception comes in Mr. Wooten's comments about the role played by the Rev. Al Sharpton at Michael Brown's funeral. Mr. Wooten described Rev. Sharpton as "a blatant opportunist who habitually sharpens racial resentments" and also said, "The respect he commands despite his key role in the Tawana Brawley hoax reflects a galling double standard."

The overwhelming - and more accurate - perception of Rev. Sharpton in the black community is that of a conscientious community activist who devotes his time to combating injustice, presses for positive change and responsibility in the black community and who intervenes in local concerns only when he's invited to do so and after examining the circumstances surrounding the concerns.

Noting Rev. Sharpton's involvement in the 1987 Tawana Brawley case - an event so dated that a lot of folks would have to research it to understand the reference - is a bit "over the top." I'd accept and acknowledge that dated reference only if Mr. Wooten would also note that Rush Limbaugh is a mean-spirited, arrogant, race-baiting demagogue who grudgingly owned up to being a drug addict a decade ago to strike a "plea deal" and who still stirs the spirits of insecure racists through his inflammatory rhetoric. If Mr. Limbaugh's past missteps don't merit attention, then neither should Rev. Sharpton's.

In a nation where armed white "militia" confronted federal agents at Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch and came away without a shot fired and where those with "concealed carry" permits can shop in stores with their weapons on their shoulders, but where a black man named John Crawford was shot and killed by police in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart for picking up an air rife - a "BB gun" - that he considered purchasing, there's still a pressing need for national and local discussions on perception and reality when it comes police and race.

The sooner, the better, before more black lives are needlessly lost for ridiculous, racially biased reasons.

The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.