WASHINGTON — While I was growing up in an overwhelmingly white, resolutely middle-class neighborhood west of St. Louis, the city of Ferguson — about 20 minutes north around I-270, past the airport — was never an intended destination. It was a working-class area that did not figure or matter much in my world. For all I knew, it was a foreign country.
In those days, St. Louis was a city segregated by suspicion and class affinity. And sometimes by race. I remember an African-American friend of my older brother being denied entry to the pool at my father’s golf club. Membership information had been misplaced. Better to come back later.
When I asked my wife, who is Korean and also from the St. Louis suburbs, how minorities were treated during her youth, she thought a moment and responded: “I was the minority.” She could not recall attending classes with another minority child until late in high school.
St. Louis, like nearly everywhere else in America, has grown more multicultural (though less quickly than many other places). Immigrants to the region have lately come from Bosnia, India and China. But events in Ferguson demonstrate the paradox of American diversity: An increasingly multicultural nation remains deeply divided by race and class. There are many more friendships and marriages between white and minority Americans (about one in 12 marriages are interracial) — but at the same time racially charged suspicion and anger persist among millions. And a broad perception of our own racial enlightenment and acceptance has created a different form of isolation — a self-satisfaction that obscures or masks deep social divisions.
The killing of Michael Brown is not primarily a symbol, an example or a wake-up call. It is a specific human tragedy, on a specific street, involving a serious factual dispute. It is the reality that matters most: the deadly struggle over a gun or the murder of a man with his hands in the air. When an unarmed man is killed by a police officer, it is the police who have the burden to demonstrate that it was somehow justified. When protests begin, it is community leaders who have the burden to channel the outrage constructively.
But the Brown killing, as part of a grim series of similar tragedies, has quickly become symbolic. As usual, the incident confirms people’s pre-existing ideological narratives. It shows a racism deeply rooted in American legal structures. Or it demonstrates the opportunism of the media and the grievance industry. It is evidence of structural rot or of anti-police bias. It indicts the militarization of police forces or reveals the well-armed challenges they face.
But many people I know who differ on these matters shared the same immediate, emotional reaction: The images of tear gas, rubber bullets and sniper rifles from Ferguson don’t look like America.
In a sense, it is a different country. As America has grown more diverse and prosperous over the last several decades, the economic and social isolation of some communities has only increased. This is not entirely a function of race. Many in the white working class have also felt segregated from the promise of America. But problems are concentrated among African-American males, who have disproportionately low levels of workforce participation, disproportionately high levels of incarceration and little sympathetic attention from the broader society.
This is not an excuse or even an explanation for any specific incident. It is just a context. African-American males are in a long-term, economic and social crisis for which there are many economic and social explanations. But their most likely interactions with public authority are a squad car or a demand for child support.
These actions can’t be the only outreach, the main interaction, our society has with young black men. A merely criminal justice response to their problems will ensure future resentment, kindled into anger by future controversies. As a practical matter, it becomes increasingly difficult to enforce order in the absence of opportunity. We often expect too much of police and prisons.
During civil strife, it is necessary to establish public order — against both criminal elements and abusive police power (which undermines order as well). But our most admirable, influential leaders have attempted to do something more: to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. And surrendering this objective for any group of Americans would leave a nation both diverse and divided.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.