As the dust, smoke and gunfire in Ferguson, Mo., subside, Americans are left with realities that many of us would rather not confront. The circumstances surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the officer who shot him may be the focal points of the media, but they also force us to consider our own attitudes on race.

The rioting, looting and violence are unacceptable activities. Period. Looting an auto parts store before burning it to the ground does absolutely nothing to advance justice and racial equality. In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” In the same interview, he also noted, “Riots are self defeating and socially destructive.” Those who suggest that rioting in Ferguson is somehow an extension of Dr. King’s mission are guilty of rewriting history.

At the same time, there are many Americans who view Michael Brown’s death as a symbol of continuing racial disparity in our nation. Their non-violent protests and sincere comments across the country beg for a thoughtful response.

Much of the institutional and government-sanctioned racism in America has been effectively dismantled and, in most social and professional settings, racist comments or actions are not tolerated. We have witnessed the first black president and attorney general. This year, we saw the first African-American senator elected in the South since Reconstruction.

Many Americans focus on the positive progress our nation has made, but what has transpired in Ferguson may not fit as conveniently in that narrative. The institutions of slavery and government-sanctioned racism were horrible evils that targeted generations of people solely on account of the color of their skin. Those structures attempted to subjugate people, families and communities under false assumptions of racial superiority.

The disparities raised in connection with Ferguson matter deeply because they represent genuine perspectives and concerns about the role of race in America. Regardless of whether a grand jury should have indicted the officer that shot Brown, far too many African-Americans are able to identify with bias in law enforcement. That alone should be enough for those of us who have not had those experiences to ask questions, learn and support our fellow Americans.

Racial progress in America may have ended the engines of discrimination that created tremendous harm for so many. Unfortunately, putting an end to racist institutions and viewpoints is far different than intentionally and personally repairing the damage that they have caused.

Regardless of the color of our skin, we have the option of simply disavowing racism or intentionally building bridges outside of our immediate circles. Our past has heavily influenced our present, but how we respond to events like those in Ferguson will shape the future of our communities and nation.

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