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Editorial: A hard road to unity
The journey toward racial harmony has too many detours yet still worth traveling
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Could it happen here?

How do we fix this?

When will we learn to understand each other?

Questions, stuck on a loop, pulled out after each deadly confrontation between white police officers and African-Americans. After each come more protests, more angry words, more accusations of “whose lives” matter most and yet another call for the nation to address its unhealed racial wounds. Yet no answers.

Many believe we haven’t looked hard enough to find them. Surely we can create a level of trust between police and urban communities to avoid incidents seen in Missouri and Baltimore two years ago, and caught on videotape in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La., recently, followed by the horrendous ambush of Dallas police that killed five and wounded nine.

Maybe. Or maybe there isn’t an answer. Throughout recorded time, mankind has been killing for every reason imaginable: Religion, territory, money, love ... and race. Certainly no new law or town hall discussion can turn the tide of ugly human history.

But we’ve got to remember, too, that for every horror story of man’s inhumanity to man, there are hundreds more of human beings uplifting one another. That’s where we have to focus. There may not be answers, but there are alternatives, seen in the outpouring of support for police officers in recent days, the attention paid to legitimate racial concerns, the words of encouragement and support offered to both the black community and law officers.

We can’t become so blinded by the bad around us that we fail to see the good.

No, there’s no switch to flip that will stop inexplicable human behavior. But we can remind ourselves that events such as these are the exception, not the rule, even if it sometimes seems those exceptions represent insurmountable flaws in our social fabric.

To snap this thread of history, how many roundtables will it take? Do they solve anything if everyone is talking and no one is listening? In particular, are those on both sides whose hearts and minds are hardened into their own points of view willing to learn about those they don’t understand? Or are those who take part preaching to the already converted?

Yet we should not give up trying. Even if we can’t “fix” racial distrust, the process of listening and learning can at least make it better. Perhaps moving the ball forward an inch, or a community, at a time is the only way to reach the goal.

Thursday, members of local law enforcement and city officials met with community members at Gainesville’s Public Safety complex to move the ball a bit in hopes of understanding each other better.

“Unity comes from understanding,” said the Rev. Stephen Samuel of St. John Baptist Church.

A cynical observer might conclude such exhibitions are whispers in the wind, especially when the next questionable police shooting or ugly protest erupts. That will change only when more people shake their set-in-stone notions and walk a mile in each other’s shoes.

For every public safety officer who takes the use of deadly force too far, thousands more who do it the right way, defuse confrontations and seek to serve their communities nobly. In most professions, we head to work in the morning grumbling about whatever meetings or tasks lie before us, but we know those days won’t end with a bullet. To a cop, any innocent traffic stop, or serving of a warrant, could inflame into violence.

Let’s also climb into the skins of young African-American men who have been profiled, incarcerated at inflated rates and treated with suspicion for no reason other than their appearance. They have heard the same tales from their fathers, grandfathers and uncles. Despite the gains made by minorities in many areas, a black man sporting dreadlocks, wearing a hoodie or driving a nice car still draws negative scrutiny. Never mind he may be a college professor with a Ph.D.; the stereotype wins out.

The rash of police-involved violence can “trigger psychological and emotional events in the African-American community,” the Rev. Rose Johnson said at Thursday’s gathering. “One of the major problems that we have in our community, especially as it relates to law enforcement, is this whole history of historical harms.”

And such history isn’t easily erased.

So we have overworked, overstressed cops asked to the impossible in crime-ridden cities full of struggling people who feel the gaze of suspicion upon them wherever they go. What could possibly go wrong on such a powder keg?

Yet they need each other. Black lives matter enough that good law officers are needed to protect them from criminals of all color. Police need law-abiding citizens in those communities to set the tone for others and end that cycle. And, we should add, provide taxes to pay their salaries.

So we talk, we listen. And we worship. Two Hall County Baptist churches will come together today — mostly white Air Line and predominantly black St. John’s — in a show of Christian brotherhood. For a little while, what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most segregated hour” in America will be a little less so, prayers and songs of praise lifted in one voice. It’s not the end-all solution to racial disharmony, but it’s a good start.

The real hope lies with each generation learning the lessons of the one before and inching society a bit closer to understanding. Today’s young people grow up in a world more accepting of diversity, racial and otherwise, than their parents and grandparents did. In time, those attitudes will become the majority point of view, and the fear and prejudice against those who aren’t “like us” will fade.

It will happen. It’s just taking way too long.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep talking and listening to each other and trying harder to understand. In a quest for empathy, the journey may be as important as the destination.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas. 

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