Both sides must work to end our season of killing

By Georgie Anne Geyer

NEA Columnist

WASHINGTON -- Every day now, it seems, we can expect to see an African-American youngster being shot dead by a white policeman somewhere in our vast country. This horrible picture then morphs into protests and then riots on the streets. Today, it's Baltimore.

How can it be that there has been such a drear repetitiveness in our days from last fall to this winter and spring? How is it that the police fill their role, as in a stage play, and young black men play right into the cops' hands?

The first thing for most Americans is to leap to the tired old conclusion: "It's just the same old racism. Nothing has changed." This is comforting to both sides.

The only problem is, it's totally false. The advancement of civil rights for all Americans moved slowly until the 1960s when (God must have been watching) the struggle exploded with the extraordinary insights of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Using nonviolent action, a la Gandhi, King won racial freedom in America for all time. It seemed that everything had changed -- and much had.

Today, we have a black president, attorney general, Supreme Court justice, innumerable generals of the Army and college presidents. Figures show that African-Americans make up roughly 10 percent of university student populations. Socializing and even interracial marriage don't turn a head.



Outside observers, particularly white ones, thus believe that the race problem is solved for ALL black Americans. But there is a terrible misunderstanding here. We think a black man in the White House empowers all black Americans; but it does the opposite. It empowers Barack Obama. To the youngsters protesting and burning businesses on the streets of Ferguson, New York, North Charleston and Baltimore, the vast difference between them and Obama is overpoweringly humiliating.

"Why him?" "Why not me?" "And why is this son of Hawaii in the White House while I'm still on the streets?"

We have come to the point where I would like to make a suggestion. This is not a light or frilly suggestion, but one that comes out of 50-some years of covering these conflicts around the world.

First, we should have an intra-police conference -- at the highest level -- of cops from all over the country. I have a feeling they have been sort of left out of the rhetoric and reality of civil rights.

Topics the conference should address: mixed-race policing in the neighborhoods. Absolutely forbidding the use of filthy words or dirty references to ANY people. (You're professionals, guys, remember!) Training to use the lowest level of force possible in all situations.

The goal would be to make our police corps the greatest in the world, and let the American public know why.

But here comes the controversial caveat that alone can complete the circle: There are no free lunches, not in Ferguson or Baltimore or Paris or Berlin. There are two sides playing this game and both need -- badly -- to reform their ways.

While almost everyone will focus on the police, few will mention in public how the impoverished, violent and largely FATHERLESS urban black communities complete the circle of this equation.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, half a century ago, wrote his "outrageous" ideas on the state of the modern black family. He despaired that the "illegitimacy" rate for black babies was approaching 25 percent; today it is 72 percent. In Chicago, 85 percent of public school students live in low-income households. Fathers quickly take off and the women find other "loves." Crime fighters in Illinois find that crime against babies and children occurs at unusually high levels when the children have different fathers.

This is the newest "for-God's-sake-do-not-touch" subject. Yet, I would guess that it is the unspeakable crime that emanates from this social milieu that is repulsing the police and turning them against the young men with guns. There have already been 355 shootings in Chicago through March of this year and 78 killings. Baltimore counts 68 homicides to date. Many of the cops are angry and filled with retribution, and many are scared.

The poor black communities these violent young men and their fathers come from need to be brought together to seriously address their problems.

Almost as angering is the silence over who commits these murders. In February, The New Yorker published an amazing piece that begins to close the circle of the killings of this winter and spring. Titled "Don't Be Like That: Does Black Culture Need to Be Reformed?" by staff writer Kelefa Sanneh, the book review traces all the reasons American sociology today refuses to look at black pathologies.

President Obama does come into it, quoted from his 2008 speech on race, saying African-Americans need to take more responsibility for their own communities by "demanding more from our fathers." But more hopeful as a guide to the future may be the new book by Jamaican-born sociologist Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse, a Harvard doctoral student, "The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth."

Whatever comes out of this season of senseless killing, success will not come from the efforts of one side of the struggle. The police will have to reform themselves to respect all Americans, and the young black boys of the ghettos will have to drop their guns and pick up their books.

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