Robert Samuels, Washington Post, October 7, 2014
Alice Singen had always seen her home town as an integrated, harmonious place. Like many other white residents, she prided herself on staying here even when others began to leave.
But since the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer, some African Americans are calling it segregated and racist. Now Singen has found herself talking in terms of “us” and “them,” “we” and “they.”
“I didn’t have any problems with anybody or any color, and all of a sudden it feels like we are being held responsible for something that’s not our fault,” Singen, 70, said as she left Faraci Pizza, a 46-year-old Ferguson business that has become a focal point of racial tension. “I don’t get it.”
That sense of shock is common here among Ferguson whites in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death and the explosive protests in the days that followed.
The situation has forced many white Ferguson residents in this majority-black city–from small-business owners to the mayor and police chief–to question their beliefs about the community’s racial dynamics.
They have discovered that blacks and whites here profoundly disagree about the existence of racism and the fairness of the justice system. And now, whites who once believed their town was an exception in a country struggling with racial divisions have to confront the possibility it is not.
“I keep a lot of African American friends–some of my dearest friends–but when we hang out at the brew house, we don’t talk about these issues, ” said Mayor James Knowles III. “A lot of residents are going, ‘Damn, I never realized my friends felt that way or had these experiences.’ ”
Along South Florissant Road, there are detached houses with pumpkins on the porches. There are custard shops and coffeehouses. The lawn signs and T-shirts say “I ♥ Ferguson.”
And there’s Faraci’s, where Singen buys her pizza. A few weeks ago the owner, Jim Marshall, confronted a group of mostly black protesters about hurting small businesses. Curse words flew, both sides acknowledged. But then, protesters said, he flashed a gun at them. They called for a boycott, saying the owners were racist and supporters of Wilson.
Marshall’s wife, Dawne, tries not to talk about the incident; it makes her too angry. One day last week, she stopped kneading dough and addressed her patrons.
“We are not the type of people who they say we are!” she said. She pointed to two black residents sitting in her restaurant. “When I see you, I see you,” she said as she began to cry. “I don’t see color!”
After her husband confronted the protesters, Dawne Marshall said, he came inside and saw a crowd threatening him from the windows. “And yes, then he did show them his gun because he needed to protect his family,” she said. “Everything has gone out of control. We are from this community, and we’re not leaving, dammit.” The patrons applauded.
Carl Hart, who is white and went to high school with the Marshalls, tried to calm things. One evening, wearing a yellow “Ferguson Proud” T-shirt, Hart bought $120 worth of pizza to distribute to anyone passing the shop.
His plan seemed to be working until a group of 20 protesters–almost all black–encouraged two young boys to put down the slices.
In the group, Hart saw a black friend from the neighborhood. He smiled; she did, too. Then they hugged.
“Do you want some pizza?” he offered. She politely declined.
Hart has lived here most of his 47 years. He was class president at McCluer High School. More than a third of the students were minorities then, and he said he could not recall a racist incident. He believes in building communities and the good of people–which made it possible to think that his town’s troubles could be helped, if not solved, by a slice of pizza.
“My biggest gripe is that no one is giving the justice system a chance to work out,” Hart said. “We don’t know all the facts, but there is an investigation and a process. This is America.”
Between 2000 and 2010, the white population plummeted from 44 percent to 30 percent, while the black population grew from 50 percent to 67 percent. He wonders, if he saw no racism back in the old days, how could Ferguson be racist now?