After Ferguson, Learning to Listen

Protester faces line of police during Los Angeles demonstration following Missouri grand jury decision on shooting of black teen.

The shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., exposed long-ignored, long-simmering tensions in the United States. Ferguson amounts to a kind of national Rorschach test on race. Polls show blacks and whites hold decidedly different views about the unarmed teenager’s death.

The twin cities of Bloomington and Normal, where I live, are on the central Illinois prairie between Chicago and St. Louis. Both are anchored by great universities—Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington and Illinois State in Normal. People here still leave their cars and back doors unlocked. A political science professor is Bloomington’s mayor; a bicycle shop owner is mayor of Normal (the name itself evokes a “Wonder Years” type of serenity).

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The community is overwhelmingly white. Bloomington hired its first-ever African-American police chief last year, but he is one of only two blacks on the police force. Normal has one black police officer. There are no African-American judges or state’s attorneys.

At a series of discussions about diversity (pre-Ferguson) at the local Y.W.C.A., white participants described Bloomington-Normal as if they were conjuring up Mayberry. African-American professionals on the panel said they preferred to live in more racially diverse Peoria, even if it meant driving 45 minutes to their day jobs here. At least they could have a social life in Peoria. In Bloomington-Normal, blacks and whites mingle mainly on the Walmart checkout line.

Ricardo Cruz is a writer and associate chair of Illinois State’s English department. He says he sometimes feels “stalked” by local police officers. “You know, you walk from the grocery store toward your home and you see them riding by looking at you in ways you know they’re wondering if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing,” Cruz says.

It’s an impression of the police that begins early in life. Wayne Patterson, a local business owner, remembers hearing from his father that “the police aren’t your friends.”

“I think he understood that you couldn’t look to the police for help as far as thinking they are somehow on your side or they’re there to benefit you,” Patterson remembers.

Both Cruz and Patterson instruct their own sons on how to act if they are questioned or pulled over by police. “I have said to my son, ‘Understand that you are a black male. You can’t always do what other people do,’” says Cruz. “I want him to be prepared, to be poised, hopefully to be able to do things so that he’s not shot.”

In Bloomington-Normal, African-Americans are more likely to be stopped while driving and have their cars searched, according to state traffic stop reports, even though white drivers are more likely to be found with illegal drugs or weapons. The crime rate among African-Americans in the twin cities has been falling consistently since 2007. Still, African-Americans who are arrested spend more time in jail than whites.

The question of law enforcement and race is a complex one. At its crux are two sometimes opposing objectives: fighting crime and safeguarding civil rights. Sean Vinson is an I.S.U. senior who is African-American. He was pulled over for having a license plate light out, then subjected to a pat down and a canine search of his car for drugs. None were found. “I don’t fear the police,” he says of the incident, but “it does make me feel I’m not as valuable a citizen as a white individual.”

Fighting and solving crime will always be paramount, says Brendan Heffner, Bloomington’s police chief. “When we have probable cause for searches, when we execute arrest warrants, we look at people’s actions, what has occurred, not race.”

Both police departments in Bloomington and Normal are beefing up recruiting practices to become more diverse. But arriving at a better balance will take time. In the meantime, can people of faith wait and be silent?

The Rev. Robert Rosebrough is pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish just a few miles from where Brown was shot in Ferguson. He’s begun an initiative called “Lean In,” which he says means “lean in and listen.” He wants blacks, whites and all colors in between to simply begin talking to one another, to hear each other’s stories. Perhaps it is time for other majority-white communities to follow suit—to explore what life is like for those who are minorities. We could all do a lot more leaning in and listening.

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