Howard County’s crash course on race

The popularity and influence of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the election of President Obama have fueled more coverage of race-related issues, but are we learning more? The recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers — Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, to name just two — have revitalized that “third-rail” conversation on race.

These are not isolated incidents. “Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012,” USA Today wrote about data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Despite this being the age of Obama, Oprah, Tyler Perry and Beyoncé, our society, sadly, is years from being “post-racial.” We have to address the centuries-old legacy of racism and police brutality. One such conversation happened late last month at Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia. A friend invited me, a black mother to two children, to come along. I thought it was critical that I attend this discussion.

Howard County may seem like an unlikely location to host a discussion on racial profiling. The median household income is more than $100,000. African Americans account for less than 20 percent of the population. But events such as the arrest of black, Emmy Award-winning producer Charles Belk in Beverly Hills have demonstrated what my friends and family have always known: Educated, affluent or middle-class black people are not immune from police harassment.

The panelists included five county leaders. All were male, and three were African American. Two of the panelists were law enforcement officials, including Howard County Police Chief Gary L. Gardner. This was an interesting and much-needed discussion, despite a glaring omission: There were no African American women on the panel. Black women are targeted with racism, brutality and violence, as well as sexism, and our stories are often missing from the national conversation on racial profiling and police brutality. Brutal beatings of two black women — an Arizona State University professor and a California grandmother — by police went viral on the Internet this summer. Black women also are subjected to sexual violence by police officers; Oklahoma City police officer Daniel K. Holtzclaw is accused of raping at least eight black women.

Gardner addressed racial profiling by his officers. Those officers will be dealt with “accordingly,” the chief promised. But the part of his response that resonated with me the most is that police officers “are human, too.” They may come to the force with prejudices, and they may still harbor biases after many hours of training and duty. He said he can expect only that his officers will behave in a professional manner with the utmost respect for human life at every service call.

When we gathered in the church, Theodore Wafer, a white Detroit-area man accused of killing Renisha McBride, was on trial. McBride was a 19-year-old black woman who was gunned down on Wafer’s porch; she had knocked on his front door after crashing her car in the area . Last week, Wafer was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Wafer said that he felt “threatened” by McBride’s presence on his porch.

Occasionally, I find myself forcing a smile while walking or standing near strangers. Why? To help them feel comfortable around me. Sadly, black people have been conditioned since slavery to behave like this. We’re forced to constantly prove to strangers that we mean them no harm or threat — so we won’t end up like Renisha McBride, Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.

Paul Haggis’s 2004 movie “Crash” featured an intersection of plots that all focused on race. That narrative is comparable to the ongoing series of discussions that are happening in communities, the media and social media now. If we’re ever going to get past the racial tensions in the United States, we’re going to need more “Crash” moments.

Candace Y.A. Montague, Ellicott City