The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three comments that won’t help matters in Ferguson

Larry Claffy, right, of Overland, a patron of Faraci Pizza, has words with a protester as police move in to break up the confrontation on Sept. 30 in Ferguson. Mo. (Robert Cohen/Associated Press)

The Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson exposed many troubling things roiling beneath the surface. For instance, that Missouri city’s African American majority dealt with excessive traffic stops and fines and jail time for not paying said fines while their white neighbors and the overwhelmingly white governing bodies and police force seemed oblivious to the consequences. In his excellent story today — “For some Ferguson whites, racial fault lines exposed by shooting come as a surprise” — The Post’s Robert Samuels shows that some still are.

To be sure, the story makes clear that the black-white divide over what happened to Brown and the aftermath is vast. “Neither side seems comfortable listening to the other’s perspective,” Samuels reports. But three statements made in the story struck me as dismissive of their black neighbors’ concerns.

“I keep a lot of African American friends”

“I keep a lot of African American friends — some of my dearest friends — but when we hang out at the brew house, we don’t talk about these issues,” said Mayor James Knowles III. “A lot of residents are going, ‘Damn, I never realized my friends felt that way or had these experiences.’ ”

“Keep”? Not “have,” but “keep”? You keep things or people in their place or under control. And we all recognize “some of my dearest friends” as a lazy crutch meant to make the speaker seem virtuous when it reveals him to be exploitive. Those black friends he’s “keeping” sound more like props than friends he truly knows well. If he did know them well, he’d know how offensive his comment was.

But Knowles is famously tone-deaf. As the racial tensions flared on his city’s streets 10 days after the shooting, he told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall, “There is not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson.” When Hall pushed back, Knowles said, “That is the perspective of all residents in our community. Absolutely.” He said later in the interview, “The city of Ferguson has been a model for the region about how we transition from a community that was predominantly white middle-class to a community that is predominantly African American middle-class.”

“I don’t see color”

“We are not the type of people who they say we are!” she said. She pointed to two black residents sitting in her restaurant. “When I see you, I see you,” she said as she began to cry. “I don’t see color!”

She is Dawne Marshall and she was reacting to accusations of racism after her husband, Jim, told protesters they were hurting small businesses like his, Faraci Pizza. Samuels reports that both sides acknowledge that as things got heated, Jim brandished a gun. “And yes,” Dawne said, “then he did show them his gun because he needed to protect his family.”

Marshall means well employing the ubiquitous “I don’t see color” comment. It is meant to show that the speaker is above race and racial considerations. In a perfect world such a sentiment would be wonderful. But that world doesn’t exist. To say “I don’t see color” is to negate the real world African Americans must navigate where race is omnipresent. It manifests itself in myriad ways large and small. Some encounters are as innocuous as being followed in a store. Others can be as horrific as what happened to Levar Jones in South Carolina last month.

He was pulled over for a seat-belt violation. The since-fired state trooper asked Jones, “Can I see your license, please?” Jones was standing outside his car. When he attempted to comply with the officer’s request by reaching inside his vehicle to retrieve it, the officer yelled: “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” And then started shooting at Jones at very close range.

Jones survived. So many do not. That’s why my eyes roll hard when “I don’t see color” rolls trippingly off the tongue of nice people whose hearts seem to be in the right place.

“We don’t know all the facts”

Carl Hart and Vicki Salsman say this in separate interviews with Samuels. They are right. We don’t know all the facts. But this dodge is the equivalent of “I don’t see race” in that it allows the speaker to ignore what’s going on. It is a convenient way to duck asking or fielding tough questions of themselves or others. You don’t have to have all the facts to listen to, acknowledge or understand why people took to the streets of Ferguson.

But saying “we don’t know all the facts” can also mean “I’m waiting for whatever negative or erroneous information there is to come out” to justify someone’s killing. The ugly e-mails I received from this claque after the killings of Brown or Trayvon Martin in 2012 would curdle your blood.

I applaud the people attending the various no-press town hall meetings in Ferguson. They care about their community and want things to get better. But that can only happen if both sides stop talking past each other and start listening to each other. Still, whites need to work on listening to the grievances of their black neighbors and colleagues. “I don’t see color” and “We don’t know all the facts” stop the conversation before it can even get off the ground because the implicit message is “I don’t care.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj