Editorial: A last casualty

Is this 21st-century America? The images of armored vehicles, looting, fires, militarized police and the National Guard out of Ferguson, Missouri, this month seem jarringly out of place in a modern Midwestern suburb.

And yet our country’s history — both recent and in decades past — reminds us that race-related violence is all too common in a country that prides itself on being a leader among nations. Tensions run especially high when the conflict is between white law enforcement and a black community. Think of the Watts Rebellion 49 years ago this month, or the 1967 Detroit riots, or Rodney King. Even Trayvon Martin.

We must pray for the Holy Spirit to bestow the gifts of understanding and wisdom on situations fraught with racial tensions.

Now the name Michael Brown has been added to this list, and once again the chasm that divides black and white America has come under a glaring spotlight.

It is not the aim of this Editorial Board to make a determination about what happened to 18-year-old Brown, who was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. The facts remain muddy, and eyewitness accounts vary drastically.

But we can draw three conclusions. First, what’s happening in Ferguson goes beyond the death of Brown. The race-related frustration is but one more symptom of a larger, deeper problem of racism and inequality that persists in the United States. Second, two camps have been active during the nightly protests in Ferguson: demonstrators who are exercising peacefully their constitutional right to freedom of assembly and a smaller group of instigators in the crowd whose aim is to cause trouble. The community of Ferguson should not be judged by the actions of a few provocateurs. Third, community and political leaders must take concrete steps to address the underlying issues that divide blacks from whites.

And these are the issues: a fear and mistrust of blacks by whites, and vice versa; persistent stereotypes; a disparity of health, wealth and opportunity for many black communities; an education gap; a history of discrimination, injustice and inequality against blacks, particularly by law enforcement and the judicial system; and the lack of strong families and role models, especially for young black people.

But how do Catholics get beyond the racial finger-pointing and address these issues as a greater society? We must advocate for dialogue within communities to develop stronger understanding between races. All Americans must take note of the root causes of poverty, inequality and injustice and reach out to disadvantaged communities in a spirit of financial, physical and spiritual solidarity and support. We must pray for the Holy Spirit to bestow the gifts of understanding and wisdom on situations fraught with racial tensions.

We also need to confront the racial polarities and the lack of mutual understanding that are fueling the frustration in Missouri and on the national level. One option is for President Obama to create a commission like the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, Los Angeles and elsewhere. If such a commission could help build political and social consensus for not only avoiding further outbreaks of violence, but could also help heal the racial divisions that still exist in many communities, it would perform a valuable service.

The goals of the nation should be to create unity, not division, and to desire peace, not conflict. It is our wish that Ferguson be the last casualty of America’s racial divide.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor