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Nation must find a way to bridge the racial divide exposed by Ferguson protests

The question intrudes, even unwillingly: Is America’s racial divide permanent – a tragic but inexorable consequence of its bitter history of slavery, Jim Crow and deeply entrenched resentments? Or are conflicts such as the racially charged clash in Ferguson, Mo., only a remnant of an era that the United States is leaving behind, however fitfully?

It is not difficult to find evidence for either conclusion. Those who want to see the glass as half full can start with the election of Barack Obama as president. Yes, Republicans were so unpopular by 2008 that just about any Democrat would have won the White House over John McCain. But in 2012 he was re-elected, despite a painfully slow economic recovery. To a majority of voters, it simply didn’t matter that Obama is African-American.

It is inconceivable that could that have happened in, say, 1976, the first post-Watergate presidential election and a year when Republicans were also held in extreme disfavor. In that election, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Republican Gerald Ford, and by a lesser share of the popular vote than Obama won in 2008. It is inconceivable that Americans in 1976 would have elected an Obama or any other black candidate. That Obama was elected in 2008, whatever anyone thinks of his performance, represents a change in attitude, by definition. It’s inarguable.

There are other signs, including some hopeful economic ones. More African-Americans are in management positions than there were a quarter-century ago, and more are in professions such as engineering and the law.

And more: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses increased by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the increase in the overall national rate of 18 percent. And over the same period, receipts generated by black-owned businesses increased 55.1 percent to $137.5 billion.

That’s change, and it’s heartening.

And yet … there is Ferguson. An overwhelmingly black community with an overwhelmingly white police force erupted in anger after one of those officers shot a black teenager to death.

Details of the shooting remain in dispute, but the scenes of disturbances harkened back to earlier episodes of street violence in Newark, Watts and other areas that were borne, at least in part, by the oppression of prejudice and lack of opportunity.

Whatever improvements the country has seen, those factors remain in play today, sometimes in different ways and to different extents, but they are there and they cause frustration and anger. Why wouldn’t they?

So while there are greater numbers of African-Americans in professions, they are still vastly underrepresented there. That fact is likely one of the reasons the income gap between black and white Americans remains wide and is even becoming wider. In 1983, for example, the median pay of white workers was 18.4 percent higher than that of black workers. Today, the difference is 21.6 percent.

The overall wealth gap has also increased. In 2007, white families were 4.3 times as wealthy as black and Hispanic families, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data. In 2010, only three years later, the figure had grown to 6.1 times as wealthy.

Poverty rates among African-Americans have fallen from a staggering 32.5 percent in 1980 to a still-staggering 27.2 percent in 2012. That’s a vast improvement, to be sure, but one that still leaves more than a quarter of black Americans living in poverty.

There are more depressing statistics, but even they don’t take into account the day-to-day experiences of millions of African-Americans who are followed in stores, made to empty their pockets by police or treated disrespectfully by sales people.

Hence, the question: Where are we? It was only 11 years ago that the last widow of a Civil War veteran died, so perhaps its not surprising that the nation still struggles with issues that inflamed the country then. Time passes more slowly than we think, but it does pass and things do change.

However, is it also possible that these problems have become expectations – attitudes that are ingrained into our existence? And could it be that human hearts are capable of only so much improvement, especially when events start from so low a place as they did when slave ships from Africa first arrived in Jamestown, Va., 395 years ago yesterday?

It’s hard not to wonder, in the heat of August’s events, but in the end, the questions are only academic. Whatever the answers, we are left with no choice but to believe in the possibility of solutions and to keep working for them.

Those solutions begin with education – filling children with the information they need to pursue productive lives and, just as important, teaching them to expect that richness for themselves.

For children to believe that, though, the rest of us need to do so first.