Online commenters will show us the way on racial healing?

Doug Oliver speaks at the Moving Philadelphia Forward forum in Philadelphia on Wednesday, April 9, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )
Doug Oliver speaks at the Moving Philadelphia Forward forum in Philadelphia on Wednesday, April 9, 2015. ( STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer )


I did something the other day that I long ago vowed would happen again only over my dead body or when pigs fly . . . over my dead body.

I waded into the cesspool of online comments and my email to read the more than 500 responses to last week's column regarding a mayoral candidate's statement about the relationships between police officers and young black men.

Race and politics - an Internet troll's lifeblood.

As expected, there were plenty of soul-sucking racist comments spurred by anonymity.

But in between the racism and misogyny and name-calling - you don't think trolls actually stay on topic, do you? - there was a surprising and refreshing effort to have a genuine conversation about a national crisis.

The unmonitored conversation covered everything from white flight and gentrification to poverty and systemic racism. Many were armed with stats - stats, not stereotypes! - about the disproportionate number of black men in prison and the impact of the "war on drugs," where two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

"When we start to treat drug use and addiction . . . as the public health issues that they are, rather than crimes, we may be able to someday end the siege and return to the days of police being perceive as 'peace officers' rather than 'enforcers,' " said a commenter going by the name of Pat Rogers.

Most interesting was how many reframed the issue of police officers - often white ones - gunning down black men.

"It is too easy to declare it simply a racial matter, when in fact it is a fear factor," said one commenter.

Another commenter took that idea further: "It is pervasive violence and fear of violence that not only gives cops of any race reason to fear, it gives black men reason to fear any situation with cops and where it might lead to," wrote Fernando08. "It is pervasive fear in a society flooded with handguns."

And that fear is one that haunts parents, some of whom are police officers themselves and who started to ask themselves some painful questions after a white police officer in South Carolina fired multiple shots into the back of a black man who was running away.

"I've been in this profession for 27 years," said one former officer who is black. "First time I'm at a loss for words. I didn't want to believe that this was possible . . . "

"What do you do?" asked a commenter named Fred Boswell. "Not resisting means death. Not running means death. What do you do?"

Later a local minister emailed: "I keep asking myself what would cause a 50-year-old man to attempt to literally run for his life."

His answer seemed to lie in how he deals with police. "I better be on my Ps and Qs because a white officer with either out-and-out racist intent or irrational fear could kill me. Sadly absent a passerby filming, the officer could get away with it."

There was plenty of blame to go around: The fault, many said, lies within a community unwilling to speak truthfully and publicly about its issues, and condemning anyone who does. No, said others, the blame is in reinforcing stereotypes by downplaying police brutality by bringing up black-on-black crime.

"Can we please talk about police who are in the community but not of the community?" asked one commenter.

Still others blamed the media, a reason that I would have been tempted to dismiss as typical deflection if not for the thoughtful conversation many readers were trying to have about an issue we all need to own.

Many asked where the stories were about black lawyers and doctors and social workers and everyday working men and women. "Why are we only written about when we're dead or committing crimes, as if that's all we're about," asked a South Philadelphia mother of two young sons.

It's a fair point. As we take on the national conversation on race, those of us in charge of writing the first draft of history should ask ourselves about the stories that get told, the stories that don't, and the perception that leaves behind.

"Everyone at this point is and should feel uncomfortable," said one commenter.

And maybe that's exactly where we should be. Maybe mutual discomfort is where the path to real talk and real change begins.




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