In the great American novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” attorney Atticus Finch is explaining to his daughter Scout how to deal with other people amid conflicts at school: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The novel centers on Finch and his two children growing up in rural Alabama amid a racially inflamed trial involving a black man accused of raping a white girl. As in real life, there is no happy ending in Harper Lee’s masterpiece, but valuable lessons to ponder today.
Considering alternative points of view is not America’s strength right now. We have become so insular in our opinions about politics, morality and societal norms we fail to acknowledge that others may think differently. Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of us perceives truths based on our perspectives and prejudices, formed from lifetimes of socialization within our own enclaves.
This unfolded previously in the O.J. Simpson trial, then again last year in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case. One picture offers two different views, like those optional illusion photos with hidden images revealed only by changing one’s focus.
Recent incidents in Ferguson, Mo., from the Aug. 9 shooting to last week’s grand jury decision and subsequent violent protests, again point out that white America and black America still aren’t singing out of the same hymnal.
To many, the events in Ferguson played out like this: A black teenager who had just shoplifted cigars from a package store attacked a white police officer as he sat in his vehicle. When the officer got out, the teen charged him and the cop shot him dead in self defense.
That’s also how the grand jury saw it, electing not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. They examined the evidence and witness testimony and concluded there wasn’t enough there to seek criminal charges against Wilson.
Many have expressed the view that it’s cased closed and justice served. The cigar thief was in the wrong, the officer protecting himself and his city.
Many African-Americans see it differently. They see a majority white police force with a heavy-handed presence in a majority black town. They see a white officer stopping a black teen with no provocation. They see an angry young man feeling trapped and provoked by a policeman, then shot in cold blood. They see a justice system they believe has failed them again, and believe a different outcome would have resulted had the cop and teen been of different races.
One side sees justice done in the legal sense; the other side sees the perpetuation of social injustice. Lost in the argument is the fact the two are not the same thing.
The resulting protests are viewed differently as well. People of both races may wonder how looting a store has any relevance to the shooting or in any way rights a perceived wrong. But African-Americans are more likely to understand how frustration and desperation can boil over when hope is taken away.
Right or wrong? No, just black and white. And lots of gray.
Calmer heads might be able to find that gray area, or some sense of walking around in the other guy’s skin. One side might see how even in the frustration of the moment, burning and looting diverts attention from the bigger issue and hurts minority business owners. Peaceful, if forceful, protests make the point better. More effective would be productive activism: Voting and civic involvement, seeking to change the system rather than send it up in flames.
On the other side, it means recognizing how decades of injustice and discrimination can’t be swept aside when racial incidents occur. Past lynchings of young black men for crimes uncommitted and a justice system that incarcerates African-Americans at a higher rate than whites are always prologue. It’s the elephant in the room, the unspoken truth that makes it impossible to separate one case from the thousands before. And it’s realizing that when a black-white confrontation enters a courtroom, much of the minority community goes in asking, “OK, how are they going to do a number on us now?”
And amid those forces of history, fans flamed hotter by a broadcast media and Internet chatterati that seek drama and high ratings, not truth.
There aren’t enough cool heads urging calm reflection and a sympathetic ear. Thankfully, that was evident during a march in Gainesville last week including a couple dozen residents, joined by the Hall County sheriff and other local officials pledging to keep lines of communication open to avoid such a tragedy here. That dialogue is the only way to ease the distrust between the cops and the people they serve.
Long-term changes in the makeup and demeanor of the Ferguson police force and others like it needs to be addressed through community engagement that replaces images of tanks and riot gear. In addition, the Michael Browns need ways to work toward positive goals and a more hopeful future.
None of this will happen as long as the narrative remains about good guys and bad guys, with no agreement on which one is which. Not enough people are saying “Here’s what I believe, but let me listen to what you have to say and try to understand.” Few are walking in anyone else’s skin, particularly if it’s of a different color.
There are no Atticus Finches out there. Just too many dead mockingbirds. And no answers.