Steve Paul

In race relations, the lurch goes on and on

Protesters took their grievances over police shootings of young black men to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., on Dec. 20.
Protesters took their grievances over police shootings of young black men to the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., on Dec. 20. TNS

Another police shooting outside St. Louis. A young black man is dead. A white officer contends the 18-year-old pointed a gun at him. Surveillance video appears to confirm that.

Once again, protests flared late Tuesday night, just five miles from the spot in Ferguson, Mo., where another 18-year-old African-American, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white police officer in August.

And once again, Americans have been moved to consider, as Marvin Gaye once put it, What’s going on. (Mother, mother / There’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying.)

Protests against racial profiling and police brutality have persisted across the U.S. since Brown’s death. Demonstrations accelerated after grand jury decisions in the cases of Brown and Eric Garner, who died as a result of a police chokehold on a sidewalk in Staten Island, N.Y.

And the outrageously senseless slaying last weekend of two wholly innocent New York police officers — gunned down by a rudderless black man — added toxic fuel to the fire of debate that’s roiling the nation at the moment.

Despite the disparate circumstances, all these and other recent fatal incidents have tapped into a seemingly intractable strain of distrust. Generations upon generations of white people and black people — too many whites, too many blacks — hold little but low expectations when they face one another across the racial divide.

We can point to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and wonder if we’re in the midst today of a similar search for justice for all. Yes, of course, but the trouble is, the policy advances of that era — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voting rights and desegregation in public places — hardly delivered us to color-blind paradise. The election of a black president in 2008 did not call forth a “post-racial” society.

You can read Jason Sokol’s new book about race relations in the northeast U.S., “All Eyes Are Upon Us,” and wonder if anything has improved at all in the last half century. But you will certainly come away with a better understanding of the continuum of racial discomfort that defines American society as it lurches between multi-racial progress and disturbing disappointment.

Sokol set out to illuminate the myth that white Americans in places like Brooklyn and Boston were somehow more enlightened about such matters in the ’60s than those in the Jim Crow South.

A battle over segregated schools and an aggressive police raid on a nightclub resulted in long-forgotten demonstrations in Springfield, Mass. This was the period, in 1965, when riots were erupting in the Watts section of Los Angeles and protest marches in Selma, Ala., burst into a “Bloody Sunday” as law enforcers unleashed an assault on demonstrators.

Among other politicos, Sokol recounts the career of Edward Brooke. Despite the darker color of his skin and being a liberal Republican in a Democratic state, Brooke won statewide office in Massachusetts and went on to become, in 1966, the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. Brooke strived to be considered a color-blind figure, but his political fortunes dissipated in the 1970s as the nation debated forced school busing as a means of integration and Boston became the site of that issue’s ugliest flashpoints.

Sokol follows his threads to Deval Patrick’s election as Massachusetts governor and President Barack Obama’s two elections. Late in the night after the first, three young white men torched a black church in Springfield. In each political case Northeasterners proved capable of imagining a loftier future, Sokol writes, while remaining “deeply committed to racial segregation and economic inequality.”

Which sends me back to Marvin Gaye’s lyrical wisdom, and perhaps the hope fueling today’s multiracial protest movement: You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some understanding here today.

To reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Twitter: @sbpaul.