11/25/2014 10:44 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

Tragedy in Ferguson: What Will it Take to Move Forward?

A Missouri grand jury elected not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who killed African American teenager Michael Brown in August of this year. Many are waiting to see if there will be any consequences at all for what happened and whether any reforms can reduce the likelihood of something like it happening again. Others are already looking beyond it and asking larger questions about what this all means for daily life in America if you happen not to be white. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have indicated they intend to lead regional discussions of race and policing -- and communities across the country are making plans to try to have "the conversation." Meanwhile, a polarized country is in limbo, stuck again in a familiar and uncomfortable reality.

Talk we must. It is an essential step toward action. Will we learn something from this experience and put it to good use? Will we gain insight into the dangerous assumptions we make about Black men, casting them categorically under a cloud of permanent suspicion? Will we better understand what we have a right to expect from those who are sworn to protect us? Can we accept a status quo where an African American mother reported on twitter last night that her seven-year-old boy told her, "Don't worry Mommy. If we want to live, we just have to stay home."

In Hamlet, Shakespeare's character Marcellus famously observes that "[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark." If something is rotten in our world, are we committed to taking action to do something about it? Do we even agree that there is a problem, or see ourselves as essential to solving it, whether we live in Ferguson or far away?

The majority population, most of whom pollsters tell us did not believe Officer Wilson committed any crimes, may believe the country can afford to accept things as they are. People of color -- Black men and their families and those who depend on them cannot afford that luxury. They need us to get this right. Their dignity, their success by every traditional measure -- their physical safety -- their freedom -- all depends on America getting this right. Do we have a choice?

The poet Langston Hughes famously asks, "what happens to a dream deferred" -- whether its dreamer withers away or explodes. Lorraine Hansberry, explores Hughes' questions through the play A Raisin in the Sun and in several powerful essays. In one such essay, she lauds her protagonist Walter Lee Younger's willingness to stand up for his own dignity even against insurmountable odds, likening his resolve to "King Oedipus refusing to tear out his eyes, and attacking the oracle instead."

In another piece written just before the debut of her famous play, Hansberry projects a stubborn optimism about race in America, noting that "[o]nce physics overwhelmed the minds of men. And it came to pass, that he who had no wings came to command the air at speeds no bird can manage. Surely then, as we turn our full attention to the hearts and minds of men, we shall see that if man can fly -- he can also be free."

For those who engage in the conversation and the work that follows, there is a range of roles to play and all of them have the potential to strengthen communities and move us forward. Artists need to interpret, create and provoke. Activists and community leaders need to employ non-violent civic engagement. Engineers, educators and entrepreneurs, bankers and business leaders need to contribute. Policy experts need to develop options and explain how they make things better. Families need to make these conversations part of their child-raising and personal development. Each of us needs to be honest about the limitations of our own experience and seek out better understanding from wherever we have to go to get it. All of us will be needed to participate in our own communities. And for any of these efforts to matter, police and public officials need to lead with conviction or step aside.

Every issue that has surfaced through this tragedy is an opportunity for progress. First though, we need a working consensus that something is indeed rotten in America, and at least a broadly shared understanding of what that is. Unfortunately, this is where the Michael Brown tragedy finds us, whether the grand jury had indicted the officer or not. The question is not whether humanity can move forward, but whether we as individuals have the will to do so in our own time.