THE BLOG
09/04/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

A Taxicab Confession for a Post-Ferguson America

Hill Street Studios via Getty Images

I had just finished a conversation with a local reporter comparing the events in Ferguson, Missouri with the disproportionate arrests of black people in Shreveport, Louisiana, for nonviolent offenses, when I noticed the driver had taken an interest in my phone call.

Perhaps embarrassed because it revealed how closely he was paying attention to the conversation, he asked me whether my job involved dealing with discrimination. When I told him "yes," and that I worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, a very different kind of taxicab confession began on my way to the airport -- one that I wish more white Americans could have heard.

The driver, a middle-aged black man, described frequent interactions with police in which he felt he was treated disrespectfully and charged with traffic offenses he did not commit. He would plead his case, but it didn't matter. He was driving while black. He described the unwanted attention he received when his family was the only black family in a park in a white neighborhood. Despite making sure his family was always well-dressed on these outings, the stares came nonetheless, because there are some things you cannot change. He described the fear that he felt for his son and the need to give him "the talk" about how to behave when dealing with police, the bitter lesson that all black parents -- no matter how wealthy they are and where they live -- feel compelled to give their sons.

Most of all he described the bewilderment and frustration that he felt as the son of Haitian immigrants. Even though he unfailingly tried to follow all the rules -- to go to school, to work hard at everything, to assimilate -- he still seemed to be treated like an unwelcome person in society. It seemed to him that nothing could insulate him from the unfair treatment that he experienced because of his race.

Sadly, that sense of being singled out for discriminatory treatment by police and others is not peculiar to recent black immigrants. The sense of somehow being outside of the broader society is felt equally by black people, like myself, whose families have lived in the country for hundreds of years.

That experience of frustration has been heightened for him and for many others by the police shooting of the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The repressive and excessive actions of law enforcement following the shooting added just enough air to burst the thin bubble that we live in a "post-racial" society. Much has been written about the shooting itself: the insensitive police response immediately following, which resulted in Michael Brown's bloody body left lying in the street in full view of his neighborhood for four hours; the delayed and selective release of information about the shooting designed to impugn the character of the victim; and the militarized police response to overwhelmingly black protests and the heavy-handed attempts to muzzle the press covering the event.

Further investigation will undoubtedly shed much-needed light on the events, but it is unlikely to do anything to dispel the anger and frustration resulting from what seems like a relentless succession of similar incidents, each of which is difficult or impossible to imagine happening in a community other than one inhabited by people of color.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of recent events is the enormous racial gulf it reveals. A number of polls demonstrate quite clearly that how you view the events in Ferguson is strongly affected by your race. One poll showed that while 80 percent of blacks felt that Ferguson and its aftermath demonstrated serious racial issues, a 47 percent plurality of whites, however, felt that it didn't.

Black and brown people are not so much strangers in a strange land, you see. Far worse, we are strangers in our own homeland.

There have been too many instances where television news has portrayed the shooting of unarmed black men or a SWAT team invading the apartment of innocent people of color with battering rams and flash grenades for African-Americans to feel differently.

Those images, as well as the recent images of militarized policing in Ferguson and the not-too-distant one of black people desperately awaiting assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, have accumulated in the memories and souls of people of color. These images, all of them seemingly incompatible with frequently espoused American values, seem not to affect a significant percentage of white people, who dismiss the continuing, sad influence of structural racism as an example of paranoia on the part of people of color.

At best, many well-meaning people will argue that it is class, not race, which is the cause of all problems in the United States. This belief persists in spite of the studies showing persistent discrimination in housing, employment, and lending against people of color in all socio-economic levels. It is this apparent lack of empathy and inability to acknowledge the daily fears faced by people of color that is most daunting. It is one thing to suffer. It is another thing entirely, and much more painful and infuriating, to be told that your suffering isn't real.

Ferguson naturally and rightly has elicited calls for a host of reforms, many from the ACLU, to eradicate racialized policing. Investigations have been called for; federal and state anti-profiling legislation will be sought; and we continue to push the Obama administration to issue guidance banning profiling by law enforcement. People will urge the greater use of body-worn and patrol-car cameras. Training and data collection will be emphasized as will the need for rigorous prosecutions.

All of those things should and must happen.

But we also need to recognize that these measures, as important as they are, deal primarily with the symptoms of the problem. Prejudice and racism remain, as they always have, the real problem: the predisposition to believe that people of color are criminals, the odious idea that the very lives of black and brown people are inferior to others, and the failure to empathize with the situation of people seeking to obtain the same quality of life as everyone else.

Until this happens, black and brown people -- whether lawyers or drivers-- will continue to have to explain to their children the same heartbreaking reality: For too many people, who you are is less important than whom they assume you'll be.

Dennis Parker is the director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.