Like all of you, I’m sure, I was still trying to digest the news from Ferguson, Missouri, when I heard that another grand jury—this one far closer to home in Staten Island—had declined to indict a white policeman who caused the death of a black citizen. Do these decisions indicate that the system is working well, that citizens are successfully resisting pressure from without so as to reach conclusions that they consider rational and fair? Or do they constitute a sign that the system is corrupt and broken, that the criminal justice system simply evaluates the worth of the lives of some citizens differently than the lives of others? It’s easy to find people who believe both those things, and fervently. Having no specific information about either case other than what I’ve read in the newspaper, I am hardly writing today to bring any new facts to light. But I do think that there are lessons to be learned about life in our American republic both from these decisions…but even more so from the responses to them.
A reasonable case could certainly be made that the system in both states, Missouri and New York, worked properly and exactly as planned by our nation’s founders. The state presented evidence to a grand jury that it felt warranted putting a citizen on trial. Deliberations took a very long time—twenty-five days over a period of three months in Missouri and about six weeks in New York—and finally the members of the grand jury, determining that the evidence shown to them was not sufficiently compelling to warrant proceeding to trial, declined to indict. As far as the criminal justice system goes, the matter ends when the people speak. (There have, however, been reports that federal officials are investigating whether the police officers’ actions deprived Eric Garner and Michael Brown of their civil rights, in which cases they may well decide to pursue the matter in federal court.)
This being a republic governed by law and not a totalitarian dictatorship, the power of the police becomes dramatically lessened once someone enters the court system and the reality—the happy reality—is that people in our great land specifically do not disappear into the gulag never to be heard from again because the government suspects them of having committed a crime. Indeed, the power quickly passes to the people in such matters: the police are in charge of conducting criminal investigations, but the people—represented in this context by the grand jury—are charged with coming to their own conclusion about the reasonableness of trying accused individuals in courts of law. The power of the state is thus formally and legally made subordinate to the will of the people, which is exactly how things are supposed to function in a society in which, as President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the government is defined as being of, by, and for the people. So you could ask why it is that everybody is so upset. The people exercised its prerogative to swim against the tide in both courtrooms…and that disinclination to behave in the expected way surely may be interpreted as a sign of a very healthy democracy populated by citizens secure in their rights, men and women who do not see or wish to see themselves as servants of the government or its officials…much less as marionettes who have no choice but to raise their arms when their handlers pull their strings.
Both decisions were nevertheless received poorly in many quarters, and that really is to say the very least. Indeed, many ended up thinking that these cases somewhat paradoxically serve merely to show just how powerless at least some segments of the “people” actually are…and concomitantly how powerful the police and the government. Tempers flared. Demonstrations, some more akin to riots, ensued and continue to ensue. A general sense of despair, frustration, and ill ease has descended on the nation, albeit for different reasons in different quarters, and there it rests and will rest, I fear, for some time. I think it would be fair to say that no one, except perhaps the personally exonerated individuals in both cases, feels too satisfied at this point with either decision. Particularly in the Staten Island case—a case in which the unarmed victim was hugely outnumbered by armed police officers and was committing (or rather was perceived by police officers on the scene to be committing) an offense so low-level that it surely came as a surprise to many, myself included, that it even is a crime to sell a cigarette that legally belongs to you to someone willing to purchase it—the decision not to indict seemed hard to square with what the public knew of reality. Having Eric Garner on video repeating the words “I can’t breathe” several times while he was apparently being choked to death only added to the public’s astonishment at the grand jury’s decision. (If you want to see for yourself, click here to see the amateur video on the website of the New York Daily News.) But, of course, it also bears saying that none of us was present to hear the testimony provided to either grand jury and that, therefore, none of us is in a position to evaluate their evaluation of that testimony in any meaningful way.
The phrase “two solitudes” was originally the title of a novel published in 1945 by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, who detailed in his book the peculiar way that English and French Canadians had managed in his day to live in the same country for centuries without ever actually encountering each other, let alone actually integrating into each other’s society. The expression is far more used these days in Canada, I believe, than the book itself is actually read. But the idea itself is worth bringing south over the border to consider just how apt a concept it is to apply to American society. Poll after poll reveal the same divide regarding questions about the basic institutions of society: whether the courts are truly color-blind, whether the police are, whether the grand jury system functions without respect to the race of the accused individual, whether public schools truly offer the same education to children in every neighborhood, whether promotions in the workplace are truly unrelated to the race of the individual hoping to advance, whether jury pools meaningfully reflect the ethnic and racial make-up of society, etc. No matter how many polls I consult, in fact (and most specifically including the Pew Research Center poll released just last week that focused on the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson), the data seems invariably to point to the fact that black and white Americans inhabit different universes of perception, discourse, and assumption, that black people and white people in our country have somehow evolved the strange ability to look at the same thing and see two different things. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see that Pew Center poll.) This cannot be a good thing for a nation that wishes to lessen, not sharpen, the legacy of race bequeathed to latter-day Americans by their race-obsessed forebears.
Nor is this specifically “about” discrimination per se. Clearly, we have succeeded into doing away with the overtly racist institutions of yesteryear—segregated schools, white-only lunch counters, anti-miscegenation laws, etc., not to mention slavery itself. The elimination of formal, judicially-endorsed discrimination based on race was obviously a great accomplishment, but the whole concept of living in the same place and different places at the same time is a different concept entirely and one that deserves attention in its own right. I know how they feel: I too feel ofttimes as though I inhabit my own universe, one set over the one in which the rest of everybody lives and flourishes, and which I can see clearly and understand easily—I was, after all, raised and educated here—but, in the end, one I am in without being fully of. I sense many of my co-religionists feel similarly. In fact, I know they do.
That awareness that others do not see what we see when we look out at the world is disorienting. Canada has come simply to live with it. I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever meeting or encountering, even in passing, a French Canadian. As many of you know, I speak French fluently. But I somehow managed to live all those years in Canada without ever reading a French-language bestseller, without ever seeing (not even once) a movie made in Quebec, without ever attending a play by a Quebec playwright. I surely would never eat poutine anyway, but I can’t even recall seeing it for sale in our end of Canada, let alone actually served to anyone. I suppose it must be similarly possible to live in Quebec and remain totally unfamiliar with the cultural trappings of Anglo-Canada. Two solitudes there were in Hugh MacLennan’s day and, for better or worse two solitudes was what I encountered during our years on the ground in Canada. Perhaps things have changed since we left fifteen years ago.
This reality—that different groups within society can look out at the world through entirely different sets of spectacles—has a benign and malign side to it. The benign side has to do with the specific way diverse internal perceptions of the world can lead to a healthy flowering of ethnic or racial consciousness. But there is also another side, a darker and more dangerous side to the concept. When a law-abiding black citizen who has never been in trouble with the police in his life says, as I heard someone say on the radio the other day, that he feels panic rising when he sees an armed white police officer walking down the block and passing by the front of his house, and the average white citizen feels secure and safe, not panic-struck, when he sees a police officer patrolling in his neighborhood, then we have to address the issue not by calling each other names or denigrating each other’s feelings, but by asking simply how that could possibly be in our free, democratic country. And then, if we have the courage, we have to dare to answer the question honestly and forthrightly, and then see where that leads us. The key, I think, is in accepting that we all see the universe differently, that we all interpret the light that enters our eyes according to our own givens. Whether that ability to see the world idiosyncratically and personally becomes a source for good in the world or whether it becomes a force for inner-societal divisiveness, discord, and disunity—that is the issue put squarely down on the table by both grand jury decisions for Americans to ponder and, if they can, to resolve as part of our never-ended quest to create a more perfect union both to establish justice and surely also to insure domestic tranquility.