It has become leaden and disheartening, the series of tragic slayings of young black men by police.
One can accept the statistics suggesting that the problem is not as bad as we think. One can buy entirely the existence of a “Ferguson effect” — the idea that increased scrutiny of police actions has led to increases of violent crime in cities. One can concede that the far greater problem facing black America is the way our young men are killing one another.
And yet, somehow, the incidents of police shootings weigh heavily upon the soul. The latest well-publicized shooting occurred in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, and came just days after white officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot and killed a black man they were trying to arrest. In the latter incident, two separate bystander videos confirm that he was already pinned to the ground. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating.
“Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,” says the girlfriend of Philando Castile, the black man killed in Minnesota. Her voice is calm and respectful as she speaks to the officer who just shot her boyfriend through the window of the car. “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
We know what she said to the shooter because she made a video recording of much of the incident, which has been viewed a million times on the Internet. According to her account, Castile told the officers that he had a gun in the car, and that he was licensed to carry it. He then explained that he was reaching for his wallet.
The unnamed officer has been placed on leave. What follows will be as carefully choreographed as a dance. In due course he will be charged or not charged; he will be convicted or not convicted; and after the obligatory protests and condemnations by politicians, and the posting of Castile’s name on various walls of remembrance, the issue of race and policing will fade into the background, displaced by seemingly more urgent matters. Until the next time it happens, and we all perform the same indelicate minuet.
Critics often ask why African-Americans become so exercised over the handful of killings of young black men by police each year when so many thousands of are killed by other young black men. Chicagoans didn’t march en masse to protest the 64 — that’s not a typo — shootings in their city over Memorial Day weekend. Federal authorities didn’t rush in to investigate. Don’t those lives matter, too?
It’s a reasonable question and deserves a reasonable answer. Let me suggest two explanations. Neither is entirely satisfactory, but each, I think, points in the right direction.
The first is history. For hundreds of years, the U.S. has in large part been defined by the sharp divide between black and white. I do not speak here of statistics, although they obviously matter. I have in mind, rather, the vividness of a past in which the violence of the dominant race was simply part of the American background. My great-grandmother described the aftermath of the Atlanta riots of 1906, in which white mobs attacked the businesses and homes of the city’s burgeoning black middle class:
“In a moment our sense of security was gone, and we had to realize that we, as colored people, had really no rights as citizens whatsoever. It left us very empty, for we knew in that hour that all for which we had labored and sacrificed belonged not to us but to a ruthless mob.” Such events are living memories for many African Americans, and, for the rest, are handed down, as stories and warnings, from generation to generation.
The alarming rate of black-on-black crime threatens our concrete security.
The killing of blacks by whites, particularly police, touches something more elemental, a sense of fragility within a race still struggling to throw off the burdens, both psychic and economic, of the nation’s tortured history.
That some of the shootings may turn out to be justified is thus very much beside the point. Each episode constitutes a reminder of how the race itself remains but delicately tethered to the mainstream of American life. The lives of blacks killed by blacks are no less precious than those of blacks killed by whites; but the symbolism, the relationship of image to history, is different.
This leads to the second point: the images themselves. Even what was done to Emmitt Till we saw only in the gruesome photograph of the young man in his casket. Earlier there was often only word of mouth; even mere rumor. But there are videos now. We can see the wounds inflicted on Castile in the suburbs of St. Paul. We can see the bullets striking Alton Sterling’s body in Baton Rouge. And given our uneasy place in the nation’s tortured racial history, we cannot help writhing alongside.
Would the nation be better off if tens of thousands marched every time one young black man slew another?
Probably. But there are reasons for the community’s more visceral response to an interracial shooting — especially when the killer is a police officer. Whether or not one agrees with the reasons, it’s important to know what they are.
What happens next is predictable. Liberals will blame institutional racism. Conservatives will blame an aberrant officer. Libertarians will blame the violent culture of law enforcement.
And black Americans will be left wondering whether the pain of history will ever pass.
Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.