08/19/2014 09:22 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Toward Our Shared Humanity

When Capt. Ron Johnson officially took command of security in Ferguson, Missouri, last week, his first visit wasn't to City Hall or the streets where protesters continue to decry the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman.

Capt. Johnson, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper who attended high school in Ferguson, chose a more powerful audience. He visited a local elementary school. He talked with students and teachers about the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and shared his frustrations about the response of local police and slow release of information about the case.

Capt. Johnson, who is black, made a thoughtful choice. Schools are a critical part of the solution because schools are the incubators of social change in our country. As a democracy, the United States may always need to assemble in the streets to protest injustice, give voice to the silenced, and demand answers. Schools are where diversity must be embraced if we are ever to bridge our racial divide.

White America wants to forget communities like Ferguson -- and so far, white America is succeeding. Whites fled to Ferguson, a small community of about 21,000 people, in the 1960s to escape the racial integration of St. Louis, just 12 miles away. But when Ferguson itself started to diversify, whites moved out.

Today, African Americans are the majority in Ferguson but its police force and city leadership remain overwhelmingly white. So when Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, for reasons that still are unclear, racial tensions in Ferguson boiled over, resulting in rioting and looting and touching off protests throughout the country.

Local police released video of Brown taking cigar products from a local store just before Wilson shot him on August 9. There also were preliminary reports that Brown had marijuana in his system when he died.

Even if both statements are true, they do not explain why Brown, who was unarmed, was shot at least six times and his dead body left in the street for approximately five hours. Until more information about the case is released, especially Officer Wilson's version and the authorities' official report, concern will continue that the Brown case is an example of what the Rev. Al Sharpton calls the "over policing" of low-level crimes involving minorities. When the responding police are predominantly white, it rubs salt in a wound.

St. Louis is hardly the only region with a racial segregation problem -- Detroit, Boston, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Miami all are worse, according to the 2010 Census. But St. Louis and the state of Missouri have, like many counterparts, failed to encourage important opportunities to promote understanding among people of all races and backgrounds.

I am thinking, of course, of schools. Some predominantly white school districts in greater St. Louis area are voluntarily cutting tuition for transfer students to ease racial segregation. More districts need to take the initiative to integrate schools, and the state. The federal government, if possible ought to offer incentives for them to do so. There is no better way and no better time to promote understanding between people than to have them learn and grow, side by side, from childhood.

Given the proper professional development and support, teachers in the classroom can do much to narrow racial divides. When the appropriate professional development happens, teachers become partners in learning with their students. It is in the classroom that empathy and critical and creative thinking provides the connections to problem solving.

When guided, these skills can impact in the community, as well. Students who learn to collaborate in the classroom are more likely to have positive engagements outside of it. As President Obama said Monday, the challenge is to "seek some understanding rather than simply tolerate each other.... to seek out our shared humanity that's been laid bare by this moment."

Capt. Ron Johnson gets that. The question we need to ask is whether other community, political and institutional leaders see what he sees, and whether in the wake of similar tragedies, some of the first constituents they want to hear from are children.