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Schultz: Ferguson: A failure of empathy

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 11:02 p.m. CST

Earlier this week, I arrived for a scheduled visit with a medical professional and left reeling over just how divided we remain in this country about race.

I had just settled into the examining chair when he walked into the room and said, “This country, I’m telling you, we are in real trouble here.”

I nodded and said, “Ferguson?”

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. He rattled off his concerns in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who visited Ferguson days after the shooting, is a “troublemaker who’s just making everything worse.” The police officer who killed Brown “had to have a good reason. You know he did.”

I interrupted to point out that the teenager was unarmed when he was shot six times. He shrugged his shoulders.

“He was 6 feet 4 and weighed 300 pounds,” he said. “Think about that. Now we have rioting in the streets.”

I was stunned.

“We really don’t know yet what happened between him and that police officer,” I said.

“We can imagine,” he said.

My turn to rattle off what we did know: Brown’s body lay in the street for hours. Ferguson is overwhelmingly black with an overwhelmingly white police force and city government. Most of the protesters have been peaceful. Police wore military gear as if residents were a foreign enemy. Journalists were being arrested for just trying to do their job.

He held up his hands. “OK, OK,” he said, smiling. “Maybe we should just stop talking about it.”

What struck me about this exchange, beyond the inappropriateness of the venue, was his assumption that our mutual whiteness meant I would agree with him. I left feeling as if I’d just time traveled back to 1972 for an argument with my dad about race.

I’ve had a little time to reflect on my encounter with that doctor, and I think what bothers me most is that I know he represents a significant segment of white America – so certain in his assumptions, so blind to the privilege of race that fuels them.

A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this week revealed a deep racial division over what is happening in Ferguson.

From the study: “By about four-to-one (80 percent to 18 percent), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47 percent to 37 percent, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.”

Lack of empathy, codified.

I am embarrassed and discouraged.

I address this to white parents: Imagine for just a moment that instead of Michael Brown, your child lay dead on the hot pavement in Ferguson. An awful thing to ask you to do, I know, but for us, it’s just a fiction.

Your child, who was unarmed, has been shot six times, twice in the head. The police officer who shot him didn’t call it in right away, didn’t try to revive your son. No EMT crew rushed him to the hospital. Instead, police let him lie in the street. For hours.

Now think of the stupidest thing your teenager has ever done. We all have stories of our kids doing something in complete contradiction of how they’ve been raised. We shake our heads at the memory of it. They survived. They turned out OK.

Now go back to that dead teenager on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. Imagine that’s your kid who did something stupid. Your kid, but this time he didn’t get to learn from his mistake. He’s dead, and more than a week later, no one agrees on why.

I’m tired of admonishments from other whites to wait until all the evidence is in before we talk about what is happening in Ferguson.

Let it be, they say. Let justice run its course.

As if we can’t have an opinion about an unarmed black teenager shot dead in the street.

As if we aren’t entitled to demand a full accounting of the shooting.

As if we have forgotten what happens when good people choose to shut up and walk away.

• Connie Schultz (con.schultz@yahoo.com) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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