Only on rare occasions have black Americans and white Americans been given the opportunity to see eye to eye on racial issues. Whether we've actually seized the opportunity depends on our often occluded perspectives.
But video offers us a unique perch and some degree of clarity.
For years, African-Americans have painstakingly tried to explain why we have difficulty trusting the police. Why we have "the talk" with our children on how to interact with the police. Why dialing 911 requires a deft calculus beginning with the question: Will they help the situation or make it worse? But over this last year we've seen videos of the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose and Sandra Bland.ColumnDobie: Video forces us to confront the truthEditorialEditorial: This shooting is differentOpinionOpinion: Why do we give guns to cops?
The videos reveal what words have struggled to convey.
A bystander's video in the Scott case shows him running away from an officer and being gunned down. Why Scott ran is unclear. But why did the officer shoot a man who was running away from him? The dash-cam video in the Bland case shows a woman who had the audacity to be irritated by a traffic stop, and a trained officer who allowed it to escalate into a war of wills.
The body-cam video in the DuBose case shows yet another traffic stop and an officer who, as the prosecutor put it while announcing murder charges, acted in a way that was "asinine" and "unwarranted." It would be difficult for some people to believe that this could happen in 2015. Mere talk that police officers sometimes make arrests without probable cause and use unreasonable force would have been subject to rationalizing: Certainly, the person arrested must have done something to warrant this treatment.
But seeing goes a long way - if not all the way - toward believing.
In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley understood this when she decided to open her son Emmett's coffin. She said she wanted to "let the world see what I have seen." What the world saw was the grotesquely disfigured body of a 14-year-old black boy, who had been beaten and murdered by two white men for whistling at one of their wives. Emmett, who was from Chicago, was killed in Mississippi where he was visiting for the summer.
By 1963, most Americans living outside the Jim Crow South had heard stories of southern brutality. But when network television cameras arrived in Alabama and beamed images around the world of Birmingham police officers hosing down student protesters and siccing attack dogs on them, those stories were no longer theoretical.
Suddenly, they were framed in a way that made them both easier to imagine and harder to deny.
Christopher Benson, associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the images humanized the problem of race relations in this country at that moment.
Today, he said, people are quick to introduce material that occurred off screen, and that colors the perception of what's happening on screen. I totally agree.
"For blacks who have experienced the narrative of injustice, they see what appears to be unfolding (in the video) as abuse in the context of race," said Benson, co-author of "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America." "For others who haven't had that experience and tend to see the police as the guardians or enforcers of justice, they look at whatever happened before the video was shot and that colors their perception and they think: 'Of course the person was wrong or the police wouldn't have been there.'" Still, these recent videos have helped make a difference.
A Gallup poll released last week show that fewer Americans (blacks, whites and Hispanics) are satisfied with the way blacks are treated today versus just two years ago. Satisfaction has dropped from 62 percent in 2013 to 49 percent now.
And, in specific situations such as traffic stops, 43 percent of Americans now believe blacks are treated unfairly. In 2007, 37 percent of respondents felt that way.
What we've been seeing on video is not new. It's just that without a dash or body camera or one from a bystander's cellphone, our interactions with the police are subject to the whims of our biases and left to "he said-she said." Too often the police officers get the coveted benefit of the doubt.
I understand that a video can show us only so much. While some parts may be unequivocal, others are left to our interpretation.
One of the most painful parts of the Bland video for me is watching Bland in the jail going back and forth between the central booking area to her holding cell and to another, where she eventually dies.
There's a point when the once-feisty woman seems to simply acquiesce. It makes me wonder if that's the point of her true surrender.
Dawn M. Turner is a Chicago Tribune columnist.