Whose Lives Matter?
Some seem to matter more than others
Bang bang bang. Blood on the ground. Grief-stricken families. Outrage. Protests. Accusations. Riots. Fire. Smashed windows.
We’ve seen this movie too many times. Can the script be changed?
Rewind to the killing of Trayvon Martin.
In February 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American high school student. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch coordinator of the Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Florida, which had experienced a series of burglaries. He provoked an altercation with Martin that turned violent, and then lethal.
After Zimmerman’s trial on murder charges ended in his acquittal in 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter quickly sprang up and spread virally through social media. The hashtag assertion stood as a charge that the rest of society acts as if black lives don’t matter, or at least matter less than others.
The meme morphed into a loosely organized protest movement that continually asserted itself through a series of subsequent violent events, including several shootings of black males by police. Then as the 2016 election campaign ramped up, the question of whose lives matter became something of a political pinball, ricocheting back and forth between heated factions.
In July of this year, following a peaceful protest in Dallas by a local Black Lives Matter group, a black Army veteran — proclaiming he wanted to kill white people, police in particular, to avenge shootings of black men — shot at a group of police officers, killing five, injuring nine, and also wounding two civilian bystanders. (There also were revenge attacks on police in other communities at other times.)
In the ferment after the Dallas shootings, blogger Saïdeh Pakravan insisted that “Black Lives Matter” is not a denial that other lives matter too:
Since the cop killing in Dallas — once again an infamous city — anyone saying “black lives matter” instead of “all lives matter” runs the risk of being accused of heartlessness or even glee at a sick tit for tat.
Logically, that seems right. Even Newt Gingrich openly conceded that it is “more dangerous to be black in America.” But it also is true that black lives are far more often threatened by criminals, often black criminals, than by police.
Complicating matters: There are white people and others who have reasons to feel that their lives are undervalued.
The legacy of centuries of slavery tragically continues to fester in America. But if a black suspect (usually male) is shot or killed by police, it does not necessarily demonstrate police bias. More often, it reflects persistent racial disparities that permeate society more broadly and that lead many black youth down dangerous roads through hazardous environments.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2013 non-Hispanic black males accounted for 37% of the total male prison population, non-Hispanic whites 32%, and Hispanic males 22%.*
Given the high probability that black males are involved in criminal activity and the criminal justice system, their relationship with police is bound to be fraught. Some 25 to 30 percent of the people shot by police are black, while blacks are 13 percent of the total US population. That looks like racial bias. But 70 percent of the people shot by police are not black, and half are white.
A random white person is far less likely to be shot by police than a random black person. But a black person is far more likely to be involved in crime or the criminal justice system than a white person. The rate at which a black person is involved in a violent encounter with police is on a par with the rate at which blacks are involved in crime and criminal justice activity generally. Statistics would lead even a dispassionate robo-cop to conclude that a young black male is more likely to be a criminal suspect than others.
Nevertheless, there still is evidence of some racial bias in police shootings. The Washington Post reported that, while the majority of people shot and killed by police were armed and threatening, “… black Americans who are fatally shot by police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.”
The larger involvement of blacks in the criminal justice system, and thus prisons, is spawned from its own and a broader web of social disparities. Blacks are more likely to be poor, worse educated, and less able to defend themselves or afford effective legal counsel.
There is some racial bias among police, and it may be pervasive in some particular departments. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody concluded that “Baltimore police officers routinely discriminated against blacks, used excessive force and did not get adequately disciplined for their unconstitutional practices.”
But calling cops racist is not generally true and police bias is far from the major threat to black lives. Police bias where it exists should be corrected, but excessive focus on it distracts from more important issues.
Rather, Dallas Police Chief David Brown (who is African-American) gets closer to the heart of the matter:
We’re asking cops to do too much in this country, We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.
All Lives Matter became a common rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter motto. And in fact, black Americans are not the only ones who feel that society values their lives — and the loss of those lives — less than other lives. They are not the only group that feels alienated and undervalued.
It is hardly news that Latinos, Muslims, LGBT people, and even women (despite being the majority) feel oppressed by American society in one way or another. But increasingly, so does the once-dominant white Protestant cohort, particularly working-class men.
Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, wrote in The New York Times:
A recent Public Religion Research Institute-Brookings survey shows the alarm that white evangelical Protestants are feeling in the wake of demographic and cultural changes. Nearly two-thirds are bothered when they encounter immigrants who speak little English. More than two-thirds believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against other groups. For discrimination against Christians, that number is nearly eight in 10. And perhaps most telling of all, seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s.
Behind these feelings of estrangement are substantive reasons. It was understood for years that demographic trends assured that minorities would one day become the majority of the U.S. population. That eventuality is now imminent. Jones notes that “When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, white Christians (Catholics and Protestants) constituted a majority (54 percent) of the country; today, that number has slipped to 45 percent.”
What Jones calls the end could even be called the death of white America. Indeed, J.D. Vance’s best-selling book about the white working class is titled Hillbilly Elegy — an elegy being a lamentation for the dead.
Recent research shows what another report in the Post portrays as “a clear divide in the health of urban and rural Americans, with the gap widening most dramatically among whites.” Mortality among blacks and Hispanics has declined substantially while it has not for whites. And mortality of rural white women has sharply increased. Reasons include “opioid abuse, heavy drinking, smoking and other self-destructive behaviors” — factors once commonly identified with inner-city ghettos.
Increasingly, the self-destruction is active. The suicide rate in the United States has risen by some 24 percent in this century, across every demographic category — except those older than 74, and black men. Frederick Deboer, writing in Foreign Policy, observes that even though suicide claims about two and a half times more lives annually than homicide, it garners little media attention. (Note too that while guns account for America’s high murder rate, most gun deaths are suicides.) The reason suicide is so overlooked, Deboer suspects: “Suicide is concentrated among those whom our society values least.” One example he gives is Native Americans — “a group easily forgotten by media companies concentrated in urban areas” — whose suicide rate rose 39 percent for men and “an unthinkable” 89 percent for women.
Yet another suicide-plagued group Deboer includes among those society seems to value least is the white working class. “With the rise of offshoring and the demise of stable careers for those lacking a college education, the white working class has seen dramatic rises in problems like unemployment and addiction.” Certainly by broad measures the socioeconomic condition of whites in America is substantially better than that of blacks. But trends that seem to work in favor of blacks and against whites may be felt very differently. “Because white Americans have traditionally enjoyed greater affluence and cultural prestige than people of color,” Deboer says, “they might take unemployment, poverty, and their attendant indignities as harder to stomach.”
What can be done then to curtail violence and to heal communities in the face of forces seeking to divide them?
Slogans and banners may be useful to rally factions and promote protest. The catharsis they provide may make protesters feel better briefly. But they ultimately only inflame conflict and increase polarization.
It has become a cliché to say that “we need to have a conversation” about race or crime or terrorism or inequality or whatever. But “we” presumes that “they” are partners in the dialogue. And without some sense of shared community, a conversation becomes just another shouting match that offers little prospect for communication or consensus.
For communities to heal, it seems that there must be some modicum of civility, of listening, of empathy — that is, a capacity to see things from another point of view, to consider how other people feel, and why. Ultimately, there has to be some willingness to cut other folks some slack.
That may seem idealistic. But it’s how civilized societies survive. And, fortunately, civilization is not so decayed that the capacity to listen, share, and work things out has been lost. We can still see it in action.
In Wichita, Kansas, a Black Lives Matter group was planning a protest. But after community organizers talked with the Wichita Police Department, they decided instead to gather in a local park on a Sunday afternoon in July and have a cookout.
“ Officers served hamburgers and hot dogs and played basketball with members of the community,” USA Today reported. Cops and residents “even danced together.”
It wasn’t all fun and games. Serious questions and answers were exchanged. As its name implied, the First Steps Cookout aimed to start a real, and continuing dialogue.
Later in July, in France, two teenage men pledged to the Islamic State murdered a beloved priest, Father Jacques Hamel. In response, Christians and Muslims throughout the country gathered the following weekend in churches and mosques to worship together — in defiance of the violence and bigotry intended to divide them.
Oscar-winning Chicago rap artist Rhymefest, whose legal name is Che Smith, also shows civility is possible in the face of duress. When he went to a police station in Chicago to report that he was robbed at gunpoint, he was initially treated with suspicion bordering on hostility. Eventually an officer took his report. When Smith tweeted a video of the encounter, police department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi apologized to him and promised remedial action. Rhymefest also reached out to the robber on Twitter, saying he would rather help him get a job, and asked to talk with him “like a brother.”
On the same Saturday, another fatal shooting in Chicago claimed basketball star Dwyane Wade’s cousin. Donald Trump tweeted “Dwyane Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” Smith responded on CNN:
“Chicago is in a fragile state. However, it’s not what Donald Trump is saying it is. I live in a South Side community. I can walk down my block without getting shot. I can walk down many blocks without getting shot. But it is the decades of disinvestment in the community that makes us not able to really come together.”
And then Smith invited Trump to come to Chicago. “I will walk you down a block, Mr. Trump, and I guarantee you won’t get shot.”
The pot was stirred further in August when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem ritually played before every game. Kaepernick later explained the motive for his action, evidently sympathetic with Black Lives Matter:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
As with other slogans and symbolic gestures, Kaepernick’s act of protest provoked both sympathy and complaint. Sympathizers credited Kaepernick with “starting a conversation.” But the dialogue resembled more of a food fight. Critics felt Kaepernick was disrespecting the military, veterans, and police. It did not help when Kaepernick later appeared wearing socks that depicted pigs in police uniforms.
Kaepernick subsequently said that he meant no disrespect to veterans or police. Some of the latter, using the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick, publicly defended his right to peacefully express his beliefs — emphasizing that while they did not necessarily agree with his actions, protecting civil rights was why they served in the military or law enforcement. In another game Kaepernick tried to bridge the divide by kneeling rather than sitting, an attempt to signify both honor and grief. Other athletes emulated Kaepernick with similar or other gestures.
Kaepernick’s action did stimulate a conversation — mainly about himself, the legitimacy and form of protest, the role of athletes in society, even about “conversations.” All of that diverged from the substantive issues of life, death, race, equality, and injustice. The most tangible impact of Kaepernick’s action initially was that sales of his football jersey soared to number one (even as some people were burning his jersey in protest).
Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez, while crediting Kaepernick with starting a national conversation observed, “Here’s the problem: That conversation feels as if it is headed nowhere.” And if there had been nothing more than a tit-for-tat exchange of grievances the result would have been not just futile, but inflammatory.
But then Kaepernick turned from “just talking about” problems toward “actively trying to make a change.” He announced he would donate $1 million to “organizations assisting communities affected by racial injustice and police brutality.” He also said he would donate his share of the proceeds from his jersey sales to the same causes. His team, the San Francisco 49ers, then matched his gift, pledging another million dollars to “the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve here in the Bay Area.” Other athletes and organizations followed suit.
That and other examples of empathy and civility are not panaceas — constructive actions often prompt backlash from those who are invested in hostility. But they show that it is possible for reasonable people to stand up for civilized society, and to stand against anarchy, fear, and hatred.
Updated September 26, 2016.
Copyright 2016, Lewis J. Perelman.
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