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donna bryson

Donna Bryson is a Denver-based freelance journalist, former foreign correspondent and author of It's a Black White Thing, an examination of race relations among young South Africans.

Calling for conversation seems entirely inadequate in the wake of the death of a young man.

But anything as difficult as an honest exchange about race must carry some weight. Perhaps even enough to give meaning to the death of Michael Brown.

Katie Warnusz Steckel and her high-school friends in Clayton – the St. Louis suburb where the grand jury met and decided no crime had been committed in Mr. Brown's death – have struggled in recent months to start such conversations.

After Mr. Brown, an unarmed, African-American 18-year-old was shot and killed by a white police officer on Aug. 20 in nearby Ferguson, the students turned to social media, with posts featuring portraits of young men and women holding the camera's gaze. Accompanying their photographs are phrases the subjects have heard that left them feeling fellow students were trying to dismiss them:

"You don't look very queer."

"You don't seem very scary for a Muslim."

"You're really pretty for a black girl."

"You're Asian. I thought you knew everything."

"Why do you act so white?"

The hashtag is ‪#‎thinkbeforeyouspeak. Ms. Warnusz Steckel, who is white, said the point is to get students to contemplate the impact their words can have on others, and to consider the history of inequality, oppression and racism that informs glib stereotypes.

"It's okay to admit we have a lot of room to grow," the 17-year-old high school senior said.

Clayton, with just under 900 students, a fifth of them black, is ranked the No. 2 high school in Missouri by U.S. News & World Report. The Clayton district boasts that the dropout rate for African-American students at its only high school is zero, the kind of statistic that gets optimists talking about post-racial America.

Yes, black students can succeed. Doors once closed to them, such as suburban St. Louis schools, are now open. But that does not mean America is no longer a society in which minorities feel under scrutiny – even as their numbers approach a collective majority – and in which some whites feel empowered to judge and define.

Or, as President Barack Obama put it minutes after the grand jury decision was announced: "We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America's capacity for change. But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of colour aren't just making these problems up.

"These are real issues," Mr. Obama continued. "What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress."

According to a CNN/ORC International survey that was conducted over the weekend and released in the hours before the grand jury spoke, 19 per cent of whites, compared with 33 per cent of nonwhites, said some or most police officers in their areas are prejudiced against blacks. Half of all whites, compared to a third of nonwhites, told the pollsters "almost none" or "none" of the police in their areas are prejudiced against blacks.

Conversation could help close that perception gap and, more importantly, help those pledged to uphold the law understand how they can be hampered by unexamined prejudices and institutional blind spots.

A grand jury composed of nine whites and three blacks determined Officer Darren Wilson had acted either in self-defence or with justifiable force in shooting Mr. Brown.

Mr. Wilson told jurors he first fired after Mr. Brown punched him in the face as he sat in his police car. Wilson, who sustained minor injuries to his face, chased after Mr. Brown on foot and fired several more times after, according to witnesses, Mr. Brown turned and approached the officer. The witnesses differed on whether Mr. Brown's final approach was threatening.

Too many Americans who look like Mr. Brown will ponder whether they can ever escape the stigma of being seen as overwhelmingly threatening simply because they are young, black and male.

As he outlined the facts and announced the grand jury's decision late Monday, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch repeatedly said demonstrations calling for reform should continue.

"No young man should ever die. This is a loss of a life, and it's a tragic loss regardless of the circumstances," McCulloch said. "But it's opened old wounds, and it's given us an opportunity now to address those wounds, as opposed to in the past where they just fade away."

Ms. Warnusz Steckel, the high-school senior, said a grand jury indictment would have energized those committed to peacefully pushing for change.

"We're really disheartened," she said. "But we're going to keep fighting."