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What Are We Healing From?

Like many Americans, I hoped President Obama might help us to make sense of Michael Brown’s death and of the daily destruction and anger we are witnessing in the streets of Ferguson. But he left me wanting more.

  • Nicole Austin-Hillery
August 15, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama spoke to the American people in a live telecast concerning the tragic and untimely death of a young, African American male, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., and its aftermath. Like many Americans, I watched this telecast anxiously, waiting and hoping for words from our President that might help us to make sense of Michael Brown’s death and of the daily destruction and anger we are witnessing in the streets of Ferguson. I waited for words that might help us to figure out how we stop this seemingly endless cycle of battles between the police and the African American community that almost always leaves young black men on the losing side. I listened intently as the President remarked that “now is the time for healing and peace…”  But then, nothing. 

I wanted more. I wanted to know how we could “heal” when there was no discussion of what, exactly, we need to heal from.

The case of Michael Brown is not simply the tragic, unfortunate story of one young man’s untimely death.  It is the latest in a string of violent incidents between law enforcement and the African American community that resulted in serious injury or death to an African American citizen. The list is long and it seems there is no end in sight to the compilation of names. This summer alone, Marlene Pinnock was beaten by a California Highway Patrol Officer in June, Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer in July, and Ezell Ford, a mentally challenged man, was shot and killed by police in Los Angeles just days after Michael Brown’s death. There is no need to reference Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant, names that are emblazoned on our hearts and minds from years past. We now live in a time where the inability of police and the African American community to co-exist peacefully plays itself out on an almost daily basis, too often with tragic consequences. This, in the words of Norman Rockwell, is “the problem we all live with.”

While it is appropriate and fitting for the President to call for calm and healing, it is impossible to talk about healing when we have yet to, as a nation, talk frankly and openly about the problem from which we need to heal. The various reactions that we are witnessing to the death of Michael Brown go far beyond his death. There is a sense of helplessness, of second class-ness that is being felt throughout the African American community and these feelings transcend class, age, and geography. This sense of nothing-ness is most palpably felt by African American men and by the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and friends who love them and pray daily for their mere existence.

Simply put, African Americans do not feel that their place in this democracy, especially that of their young men, is as valued and protected as that of other groups. The deaths of young Black men at the hands of the police, the disrespect and brutal disregard heaped upon a Black woman by a highway patrol officer, are all examples of why African Americans continue to feel that the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in many ways, continues to be a broken one.

Until we, as a country, begin to speak truthfully and openly about these separate and unequal existences and what systems remain in place to perpetuate these dualities, I fear that the healing cannot and will not begin. We must stop simply saying ‘the right things’ and begin doing what it takes to bring those words to life. 

Yes, Mr. President, we need healing, but we must confront and own up to the racial ills from which we must heal.