The shootings that interrupted an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas on July 7, 2016, were terrible.
They were also a statistical anomaly and not evidence of a pattern of wider violence. I'll explain that in a moment.
First, here are three images that can help us understand how to process our feelings about this truly awful event. They represent three different, contrasting realities that currently exist in the U.S.:
1. Here's a photo that was taken in Dallas on that same night, before things took a tragic turn:
This photo represents an ideal situation — and in fact, it's a pretty accurate representation of the celebrated work done by the Dallas Police Department in community policing.
If police are public servants who are meant to uphold our rights as citizens, then it is right that they would stand in solidarity with those exercising their First Amendment rights to protest against injustice.
I like to think that the moment reflected here is an accurate representation of the majority of police officers.
These are our brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends, people who willingly enter into a career where they're more likely to encounter a hostile situation than, say, a writer like me. But a lot of their work is doing exactly what you see them doing in this photo.
2. That's the reality of America. But so is this:
American police are also responsible for killing around 1,000 people each year in the United States. Tragically, a disproportionate number of those people are black Americans — 24% per a Washington Post calculation, despite the fact that black Americans comprise only 13% of the U.S. population.
By contrast, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty is much lower and has notably decreased over time. 51 of the 96 police officers who died in the line of duty in 2014 were killed during felonious acts, according to the FBI — killed through the actions of another person, rather than as a result of an accident. 71% of the offenders responsible for those murders were white, despite white people making up 64% of the U.S. population today.
None of this means that officers, particularly those who give their lives in the line of duty, aren't brave and noble individuals worthy of appreciation, of course. But it does mean that it's more likely for a bartender or garbage collector to be killed on the job than it is for a black man to shoot and kill a police officer.
So despite the general high-stakes job, there's no logical reason for police to feel particularly threatened by or anxious around black Americans, despite this shooting.
And yet, this photo still represents the tragic reality that black Americans are forced to live with every day. Regardless of your feelings toward police, I hope you can empathize with the fear that black Americans have during encounters with police — because it is statistically justified. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, even though white Americans are more likely to kill cops.
This is unfortunate, but it's the truth.
3. We've seen one reality where cops are good but shouldn't feel overly threatened by black people. We've seen another where black Americans are justified in fearing the police. And then there's this:
This tweet is indicative of the source of most of the controversy about violence — about whose lives matter and about when those lives can matter. This tweet is the insidious virus of white supremacy laid bare for all to see by a white man in a position of power and influence. It is proof that white supremacy still exists today.
And unfortunately, it is not a statistical anomaly.
It is people like this who create a system that continues to disadvantage black Americans 150 years after the formal end of slavery.
Their actions and influence lead to poverty, which leads to desperation, which leads to racial profiling, which leads to more black Americans in jail, which makes it harder for black Americans to get jobs, which leads to more poverty, desperation, and other problems.
It is people like this who use their power to appeal to the most rotten fears in the hearts of other Americans by pointing to statistical anomalies like a sniper at a Black Lives Matter protest and using that anomaly as evidence or justification of some greater evil while ignoring all other persistent evidence to the contrary.
It is these same people who will readily classify any white shooter as a "lone wolf" or as "mentally ill" — perpetuating the idea that only white people are allowed to be individuals while all minorities must stand as representatives for their entire group. They are the same people who dig up dirt on murdered black Americans while reminiscing about white mass murderers as quiet, gentle men.
You're not going to be able to end poverty or racism or white supremacy all on your own, which is why the events of the past week can feel difficult.
"Fixing this" can feel overwhelming, and it isn't realistic.
But it's also not realistic to "choose a side," to pit police against black Americans. If we do that, we're letting that specter of white supremacy continue to divide our country.
What we can do is speak out against the injustices we see.
If we do that, maybe we can finally start to mend this broken system.
When someone says something racist or does something oppressive or harmful, we can call them on it. Maybe they didn't mean it; maybe they didn't realize they were saying something that perpetuates the roots of white supremacy. But they're not going to learn unless someone takes the time to explain it.
It's also important to listen to people who have other opinions. A lot of people are hurting right now, and with good reason. You don't even have to agree with them to accept that their pain is justified and their perspectives and experiences are real. Reach out and connect, and try to understand someone else's point of view before forcing them to see it from yours.
And you can volunteer. You can tell your friends. You can amplify the voices of the people who are hurting and try to empathize with everyone you meet. You can get mad and use that energy productively instead of sitting back while these things happen again and again and again because you don't think it affects your life. (It does.)
It is 2016 in the United States of America, and these three photos represent three very different realities that still manage to exist at the same time.
And that, in itself, is a problem worth solving.