The country is in the midst of a heated conversation about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri,and the tragic death of Michael Brown. Was this a killing of a defenseless man with his hands in the air, or a brutal attack on a police officer in his cruiser? The testimony from “eyewitnesses,” and some physical evidence, supports both narratives.

It turns out that where you stand on Ferguson is largely a matter of what your personal experience has been with law enforcement, and, as a recent Washington Post poll makes abundantly clear, whether you’re black or white. The Post found that while 85 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanics oppose the recent grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, 58 percent of whites approve of that decision.

This debate over Ferguson, like so many previous and similar events, has revealed all the deeply rooted racial prejudices that exist in America today. We don’t like to talk about race, not only because it’s uncomfortable, but because it reminds us of our worst and most ancient fears.

From the earliest days of human existence, when warring clans and villages constantly threatened each other, people clustered with people that looked like them, in mutual defense, and learned to distrust and even dehumanize the “others.” That is not an instinct that will be overcome in just a few decades or even centuries.

I don’t know what happened in those fateful moments in Ferguson, although I’ve been listening to a lot of people who act as though they know exactly what happened, and who have adopted entirely the views of one side in what amounts to a parade of assumptions masquerading as facts.

We’ve been here before. When Rodney King was brutally beaten by officers in Los Angeles, it sparked a similar national soul searching. But two things made that episode less about blaming and more about thinking. One was that it was all captured on videotape, so we didn’t have to decide who to believe. The other is that Rodney King survived to tell his story and to famously ask: “Can we all get along?”

In Ferguson, there is no videotape of what happened. And Michael Brown isn’t here to tell his side of the story. So we’re left to our preferred assumptions, and little more.

It’s easy to get discouraged about just how much progress America is making on the issue of race when these agitated debates occur. Commentary on both sides has become overheated, oversimplified and inflammatory, thanks in no small part to attention-seeking politicians and news outlets like MSNBC and the dependably incendiary Fox News.

Here’s what we do know: Racism isn’t something that was suddenly cleansed from America when we proclaimed Martin Luther King Day or elected a black president.

We’ve made tremendous progress, to be sure. We do things now that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Simple things like cheering on a mostly black New England football team each weekend without thinking about it. We have black heroes in politics, music, acting, learning and poetry, among many other fields.

Though it may not seem it, at the moment, there is almost always a benefit to these national conversations about race, no matter how divisive they are in the moment. That’s because human progress isn’t a straight march toward peace and harmony as much as a series of jarring confrontations with reality that cause us to think and grow.

Our history is full of these leaps forward on race. None were easy for the people who lived through them.

Maine sent more farmers and laborers to fight in the Civil War, as a percentage of our population, than any other Northern state, and their widows and children suffered terribly because of it. Black people, particularly in the South, faced lynching, fire hoses and attack dogs to stand up for equality.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson used federal power to ensure that young black people could enter the school or college of their choice. Martin Luther King moved the nation. Many of those people paid a terrible price for their stance.

Ferguson is both a personal and national tragedy, but an even greater tragedy would be in not learning from it and advancing ourselves.

Every event like Ferguson is an opportunity to be reminded of Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and to take another step forward in the transformation of America toward what both King and President Lincoln called on us to do, which is to live out our creed, “that all men (and now, all people) are created equal.”

Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine. He can be contacted at:

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