Editorial: All communities must work to improve race relations

Editorial: All communities must work to improve race relations

(File photo)

The issue of race relations in America is so complex and emotionally charged that it is easy to get lost in the weeds. It is a cauldron roiling with a multitude of elements, some easy to identify and others difficult to spot. Horrible past injustices that stem from slavery and segregation cause many blacks and whites to view present events through very different prisms.

There are many traps lurking in the minefield of race relations. It is easy and wrong to see whites and blacks as monolithic groups in which everyone views race relations the same. It is easy to fall into the trap of looking only at skin color and not at issues of education, class and location. When we “know” our view is the right one, it is easy to impugn the motives of those who have a different perspective.

Given America’s past and the complexity of the issue, it is not surprising that tensions still exist. People everywhere are looking at their communities and asking, “Could what happened in Ferguson, both the killing and the aftermath of protests and confrontations with police, happen here?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

Yes, a police officer of one race could kill an unarmed civilian of another race under questionable circumstances in any community in America. Violence could then be the response.

But it certainly is less likely to happen in Alexandria, for many reasons. Our city has a strong history of peaceful protests, like the one led by local hero Samuel W. Tucker in 1939 when he led a non-violent sit-in at the Alexandria public library. Desegregation happened peacefully here.

Our police force has a history of restraint, not overreaction. Our city leaders were wise not to secure military equipment, like armored vehicles, doled out by the federal government and used by local police in Ferguson that helped inflame the situation there.

And Alexandria, which is 65.9 percent white and 22 percent black according to the city website, has elected and re-elected a black mayor, Bill Euille. Our city manager and police chief are also black. Alexandria is a meritocracy, where people are elected or promoted based on their ability and not their skin color.

We are not perfect, and racial tensions exist even here. Many in the black community questioned last year’s shooting dead of Taft Sellers: though he was armed, he wound up being shot many times and his body lay in the hot sun for hours after the shootout with police.

But in general, blacks and whites here work hard to get along. When we complain or protest, it is done peacefully.

A shining example of this happened two weeks ago, on December 3, when Alfred Street Baptist Church Pastor Howard-John Wesley led his congregation from a church gathering on a march to the courthouse — with the blessing and assistance of Alexandria’s police department — to protest the decision not to indict a New York City police officer in the death of an unarmed black suspect.

While relations between Alexandria’s police force and the community are good, they can always be better. To that end, more interaction between the police and community — aimed at furthering understanding — would help. Body-worn cameras for police officers would also help prevent situations where officers and witnesses provide conflicting accounts, and the truth proves elusive.

We think Alexandria has long been on the right track when it comes to race relations. But, as in all relationships, a city’s police force and its residents must continue to work on it to be successful. Understanding and empathy flow from talking and interacting. We need to do what we have been doing, only more so.