Reactions to the news that Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson will not face criminal charges in the death of black teen Michael Brown have once again laid bare America's enduring racial tensions -- but they also have exposed deep and stark political hostilities. We live in a world of two narratives: one left, one right, both polarized and equally simplistic.
Some on the left see the case as so clear-cut -- the cold-blooded killing of an African-American teen by a racist cop -- that even debating it is wrong. Author and blogger Greta Christina stated upfront that she was not willing to have a "civil debate" on "whether police should be able to shoot unarmed black men with their hands in the air." When a black male reader commented, "I felt the same way until hearing tonight his hands may not have been up and black witnesses said he charged," Christina responded with an unprintable insult and told him she was blocking him from her page.
Meanwhile, some on the right argue that liberal commentary on Ferguson promotes a dangerous moral relativism in which there is no objective truth, only conflicting perception shaped by race. Syndicated columnist Dennis Prager calls for "moral clarity," arguing for a stark either-or approach: Either the facts show that Wilson is guilty, or they show him to be innocent.
Unfortunately, short of a video recording, the truth may not be easy to establish. In this case, conflicting and changing eyewitness testimony is a shocking reminder of how subjective accounts of reality often are. We still don't know for certain who initiated the struggle between Brown and Wilson. Wilson's claim that he feared for his life at the hands of an angry, adrenaline-powered Brown is itself a matter of subjective -- and, many say, racially biased -- perception.
The underlying issues of crime, race and police behavior are even more complex. Young black males indisputably commit violent crime at higher rates than any other demographic, and this plays a role in the dynamic between the police and the black community. But this does not invalidate claims that blacks are harassed by police for no good reason. In Ferguson, in particular, there seems to be a pattern of police using low-income African-Americans as a source of revenue via fines for petty infractions.
While left-wing rhetoric often amounts to an indictment of whites -- University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler has described Brown as a sacrifice to the "god of white supremacy" -- conservative rhetoric can skirt dangerously close to assigning collective guilt to blacks. Appearing on "Meet the Press" recently, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a legitimate point about the link between police presence in black neighborhoods and high rates of crime; but he crossed a line in telling NBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson, "Why don't you cut it down" and adding that "white police officers wouldn't be there if you weren't killing each other." It's a safe guess that Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University who is African-American, is not killing anyone and cannot contribute to reducing crime.
The facts in Ferguson, and the facts of race relations in America, do not lend themselves to simple explanations. Unfortunately, our political discourse does not handle nuance well. Polarization can turn ugly, between right-wingers who describe Brown as a thug who deserved to die and left-wingers who gloat over the fact that the wife of the newly married Wilson will have to fear for her life.
We are a long way from racial and political healing. Common decency would be a good start.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.