Maybe the most important lesson to be learned from the recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas is that from time to time we can all benefit from challenging our assumptions.
That is particularly true when it comes to issues such as police brutality and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
When incidents like the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police occur, Americans tend to run to their corners where they are shielded by narratives that conveniently fulfill what they already believe to be true about the world.
For those on the left, police brutality is a systemic problem that targets black men in particular, racism is rampant and animates officers all over the country, and the criminal justice system and its operators have it out for minorities in general.
For the right, lethal force by police is usually justified, under the Obama administration officers have become targets and victims, and the major threat to the black community is its own self-destructive behavior.
There are kernels of truth in both perspectives, but reality lies somewhere in between.
Although the facts surrounding the deaths of Sterling and Castile are still emerging, video footage of the encounters spread like wildfire and appeared to vindicate the liberal narrative.
Sterling looks to have been gunned down by an officer while he was pinned to the ground and no longer a threat.
Police initially approached him for a minor infraction – selling CDs on the street – although a 911 caller said he was brandishing a handgun.
The case involving Castile, a man who was beloved by his community and who was legally carrying a concealed weapon, shows he appeared to be abiding by all proper protocols but was shot anyway. This gave great pause to conservatives, who tend to favor gun rights and to defend police.
Are there times when agents of the government exceed their authority? Of course, and conservatives in particular should want to guard against that phenomenon.
Then Dallas happened.
A solo shooter, upset about recent police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement, brutally ambushed police officers who were protecting the rights of protesters to peacefully take their grievances to the public square.
Personal accounts of civilian victims told how officers threw themselves on women and children in an effort to shield them from the spray of bullets.
Those on the left, who so often criticize the right for allegedly inspiring violence with their words, have been forced to concede that their rhetoric – which has often been irresponsible – may have contributed to the murder of five police officers who were part of a police department that has been praised widely for its community policing efforts.
Indeed, the Dallas Police Department has been hailed for its “demilitarization” – an approach strongly advocated by many on both the right and left – and credited with dramatically reducing crime and improving the relationship between law enforcement and civilians in Dallas.
On both sides of the debate, familiar talking points have failed.
That is usually the time to seek objective truths.
But even new data recently released by Harvard economist and professor Roland Fryer illustrate the complexity of the situation.
In extensive research that evaluated racial differences in uses of force, Fryer, who is African-American, unearthed what he called the “most surprising result I have found in my entire career.”
After controlling for numerous variables, Fryer found that blacks are more likely to experience nonlethal force during encounters with police.
But in lethal interactions with police, he found no racial bias.
In fact, his data showed “that blacks and Hispanics are marginally less likely to have lethal force used against them in police altercations.”
Such data validate perceptions on both sides and serve as a reminder that no single narrative can fully explain or justify what appear to be sincerely held beliefs.
Our challenge now is twofold: to be empathetic truth-tellers but also agents of positive change.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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