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Commentary: How Will The Region Handle Discomfort?

Protester outside Ferguson Walmart during Ferguson October
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

There is a region-wide level of discomfort and tension. Everyone is worried about what happens if the grand jury comes back and does not indict Darren Wilson. The disturbing part of this current discomfort is the absolute chasm between the African-American and white perspective.

From the first day of this tragic situation, absolutely not one African-American person I talked to had any confidence that our justice system was working effectively. This was exacerbated by the fact that law enforcement was involved. Most of the white people talked about the details or the speculations, relevant state laws and a host of other issues. This drastic difference between perspectives illuminates our great need to find a new type of conversation that is honest, real and uncomfortable.

In his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," the Rev. Martin Luther King talked about creating tension to bring people to the table for real negotiation. Not violent tension, but a degree of discomfort that cannot be ignored. The many different groups of protesters have shown that they are not going away and are willing to make all of us feel uncomfortable. The white community cannot ignore the sentiment from some in the African-American community. Many are wondering if unarmed African Americans can be killed and there is no justice, what will protect any of them.

We can argue “the facts” as we may want to believe them; however that will not change how people in our region feel. Many African-American leaders acknowledge that the community cannot push for a more equitable justice system from top to bottom without addressing the unacceptable level of black on black crime in our community. We as a region cannot be impatient to get past "all of this" without implying returning to the way it used to be — otherwise known as comfortable. Comfortable for whom? This significant disconnect on the perception of racial inequality has to be addressed.

We cannot know that1 in 3 African American males born in 2001 will go to jail in their lifetime  and simply chalk it up to poor decision making. There’sa staggering 18-year life differentialin the 63105 Clayton zip code and the 63106 north city zip code, again we must recognize that there are multiple systems at work that have been unjust, unfair and inequitable. As a region we continue to struggle with our public education system as well as our health-care delivery system. Further, we recognize there are stark differences in the safety and character of our neighborhoods and communities across the region. So where do we go from here?

As author Lisa Sharon Harper wrote recently, we must move "from the plateau of rage or the plain of apathy" if we are going to tackle the big problems in our region. To extend the metaphor, we need to find the valley of discomfort and live there together as a region.

Can we create more opportunities to share the lived experience of African American parents talking to their white counterparts? Sharing their daily fears and concerns and build a common bond of love for all children?

Can we hear the stories of the many people of color in our region and their interactions with law enforcement no matter their station in life and truly understand the collective frustration that has grown over time to the profiling many have felt? Can we hear the stories from law enforcement about the stress they encounter every day because of the proliferation of guns in our community and people's willingness to use them?

We cannot shy away from the race conversation; rather we must meet it head on and know that we have to be uncomfortable if we are to move forward. Then, only then, can we as a region tackle the systemic issues around education, housing, health care, jobs and economic development.