Larry Claffy, right, of Overland and a patron of Faraci Pizza in Ferguson, Mo. has words with a protester as police move in to break up the confrontation on Sept. 30, 2014. (Robert Cohen/Associated Press)
The New York Times-CBS News poll on race relations is grim. “Public perceptions of race relations in America have grown substantially more negative” since the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last month, the paper reports. After the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. last year, 44 percent had a negative view of race relations. Today, 61 percent do. It’s easy to be discouraged by this. But I am kind of encouraged by this poll because the folks surveyed, I believe, have a more clear-eyed view of race relations.
Talking about race or race relations will never induce the joy and optimism engendered by a discussion about, say, an infant, a new job or a wedding. It will always be fraught. We only seem to talk about these topics in the wake of an injustice. More often than not, it’s usually after someone black is brutalized or dies, or both, at the hands of someone white, who is usually a police officer, who almost always slips arrest or being held accountable in a court of law. To make matters worse, America’s frustrating conversations on race have always felt how I imagine trying to talk to someone on the other side of a two-way mirror would feel. You know there’s someone there, but you can’t tell if they can hear you, let alone see you or believe what you have to say.
Yet, as I argued in a post last month, the contours of that conversation are changing for the better. What was once dismissed as African Americans’ paranoia about the fatal power of the state over their lives had to be deemed reality because there was visual proof. Lots of it. The video of Eric Garner’s take-down by New York City police last July and the videos since then of the arrest, shooting or killing of John Crawford. Tamir Rice. Levar Jones. Walter Scott. Eric Harris and Freddie Gray made it impossible to ignore decades of complaints.
And that’s why a joke by Cecily Strong at last month’s White House Correspondents Association dinner struck me as significant.
Cecily Strong jokes about President Obama's hair color during the 2015 White House correspondents' dinner. (C-SPAN)
After six years in office, your approval rating is at 48 percent. Not only that, your gray hair is at 85 percent. Your hair is so white now it can talk back to the police.
The camera-captured horrors of the last nine months clued in the rest of America to what was a dark inside joke among African Americans. Just look at President Obama’s table-slapping reaction. He laughed heartily because, as a black man, that joke was more truth than humor. But the reaction of the largely white audience was what grabbed my attention. Their knowing laughter signified to me that they were in on that joke. They seemed to understand the truth that was the foundation of the humor. All of America has or is on its way to understanding, if you ask me.
This is why the Times-CBS poll gives me a modicum of hope. Yes, folks think race relations are worse now than a year ago. But I think that is because folks are now more aware of the sorry state of race relations as lived by African Americans. And when you’ve watched a white police officer shoot an unarmed black man in the back as he ran away or a black man killed by police in a WalMart as he carried a fake gun he picked up at the store or a white police officer kill a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a public park, it is difficult to tell a pollster that race relations are anything but bad.
And once you know this, it is also difficult to continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices and inequities that poison race relations. The time for action is upon us. The president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and Task Force on 21st Century Policing are two examples. The work on criminal justice reform by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is another. Their efforts will be successful if we continue to move our national conversations on race from behind that two-way mirror to face-t0-face engagement.
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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.