WASHINGTON – The events in Ferguson, Mo., have actually led to that national conversation on race we regularly recommend to ourselves. But it is the same conversation we always have: not a dialogue but entirely separate discussions in which participants reinforce each other in the views they had going in.
In responding to the killing of Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, there are some obvious differences between the views of African-Americans and white Americans. But to say this is to miss the many other ways in which Americans are divided – by party and ideology, but also by region and age.
At first glance, the Washington Post/ABC News poll taken Nov. 25-30 tells us what we thought we knew. The nation is starkly split, with 48 percent of Americans approving the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against Wilson, and 45 percent disapproving. Only 9 percent of African-Americans approved while 85 percent disapproved. Among whites, 58 percent approved and 35 percent disapproved.
The breakdown was almost exactly the same when respondents were asked if they would approve or disapprove if the federal government brought civil rights charges against Wilson: Overall, the country split 48 percent to 47 percent in favor; 85 percent of African-Americans but only 38 percent of whites supported this step.
But to examine white opinion more closely is to see another level of discord. (And my thanks to Peyton Craighill, The Washington Post’s polling manager, for running these numbers for me.) Among white Democrats, only 37 percent approved of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson but 80 percent of white Republicans did. When it came to bringing federal civil rights charges, 60 percent of white Democrats approved the move, compared with just 19 percent of white Republicans. (White independents were roughly equidistant from the partisans.) There was a similar divide between white liberals and white conservatives.
Regional differences were just as striking, and followed patterns that have been with us since the Civil War. Fully 70 percent of white Southerners supported the decision not to indict Wilson, but that was true of only 46 percent of whites in the Northeast, 50 percent in the West and 57 percent in the Midwest. The results were similar on the question of whether federal charges should be brought against Wilson.
And a sizable generation gap affects white views on Ferguson: Younger whites are much more likely to identify with the views of African-Americans than older whites are. Among whites under the age of 40, only 45 percent approved the grand jury’s decision; 46 percent disapproved. Whites between the ages of 40 and 64 approved the decision, 63 percent to 33 percent, and those 65 and older approved it by a margin of 68 percent to 24 percent.
Gradual change does not deal with the urgency of now, but change is coming.
And a majority of Americans declined to give a blank check to the police. Overall, only 39 percent of Americans approved of how the police and other local authorities handled the protests in Ferguson, while 52 percent disapproved. African-Americans overwhelmingly disapproved, but on this issue, a plurality of whites shared their view: Slightly more whites disapproved of police behavior (48 percent) than approved (41 percent).
This may give the country something to build on. Beneath the ideological side-taking, there is a broad sense that something is badly broken in relations between the police and African-American communities. If the NRA didn’t enforce an effective gag rule on discussions of firearms, we would explore the relationship between the wide availability of dangerous weapons and the militarization of our police forces. President Obama could usefully deploy our heightened national concern to expand his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative aimed at improving the lives of young minority men and boys. Many of its self-help and community-building principles ought to appeal to conservatives.
In my own views of Ferguson, I am a fairly representative Northeastern white liberal. In particular, I think it should disturb us that the grand jury process was entirely atypical and seemed tilted from the outset against even the possibility of an indictment.
But most of all, I wish we could focus on breaking the cycle of violence that leaves so many young black men dead and on bending the arc of a national conversation in which everyone repeats the same things each time we have a tragedy – and nothing changes.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.