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What's broke?

Pew2"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is age-old advice. But what if we can't agree something's "broke"?

New data from the Pew Research Center suggests that's the case, not only in Ferguson, but across American society.

The Pew survey shows Americans are deeply divided along racial lines in their reaction to the killing of Michael Brown. 80% of blacks say the case raises “important issues about race that need to be discussed,” but only 37% of whites think it does. In fact, nearly half of whites (47%) think race is getting more attention than it deserves in connection with Brown's killing.

Nearly 8 out of 10 blacks (76%) have little to no confidence in the investigation into the killing, while more than half of whites (52%) have a fair to a great amount.

An African American friend told me the situation in Ferguson is "much more complicated" than yesterday's posting suggested. He cited a history of racism as the commununity integrated and persistent racism within the police department, among other factors that need to be dealt with.

I don't think anything about this is simple. And the Pew data confirms it. We apparently can't even agree on the problem.




FergusonI was in the wilds of Alaska, off the grid for the first time since 1994, when news broke that a white policeman shot a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. So I've been playing catch-up.

As usual, the tragedy has generated a lot more heat than light.

While multiple inquiries into the circumstances of the shooting plod along behind the scenes, interested parties attempt to shape public perceptions.

The local police chief releases a video showing the victim apparently stealing cigars and intimidating a store clerk minutes before he's shot. The victim's family brings in its own medical examinar who issues an autopsy showing the victim was shot six times. Meanwhile, protesters -- many from outside Ferguson -- clash with police and the governor calls in the National Guard.

At a distance from Ferguson, many shocked observers try to understand (1) how the shooting happened and (2) why it stimulated such an angry response.

There may be a common answer to both questions. And it may not fit into the generally accepted assumption that continuing racial segregation is the cause.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" political science blog, while St. Louis is among the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country, Ferguson is one of the most racially integrated. Furthermore, the income gap between blacks and whites in Ferguson is smaller than elsewhere.

"The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise," according to this analysis. "Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s." Blacks may live side by side with whites, but they feel disenfranchised.

The root problem is the low rate of African American participation in local elections, which are typically held in separate months from national elections that get more publicity and draw more people to the polls. According to political scientists, "off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power." White homeowners and members of municipal unions tend to vote in proportionately larger numbers.

The good news is that the problem of asymmetric representation can be fixed. The bad news is that it will take time -- perhaps a generation or more. The sad irony, of course, is that Missouri is considering a law that would require voter photo ID that many people of color don't have.

Meanwhile, if events in Ferguson follow the pattern of similar crises, protests won't end until someone is sacrificed to the protesters. It may be the officer who shot the young man or it may be the police chief whose ham-fisted response so incensed the community. But someone's head will roll.

What's less likely is that something will be done to consolidate elections and increase participation by African American voters, which is the necessary first step in making governments and police departments more reflective of their communities.