Black Lives Matter... Less

This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS
This is a Black Lives Matter Banner in Charlotte, NC, November 2015. Camera - Canon 7D Mark II, Lens - Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM

It seems a day can't go by without another report of a black man or boy killed by a policeman. The names of the men, boys and cities are like the table of contents of a horror story. Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray...

This week, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis are added to the bloody rolls.

Sterling was shot to death while being pressed to the pavement by two arresting officers. The scene was captured on cellphone video. The police claim that Sterling was armed. The video shows nothing resembling justification of the use of deadly force. The confrontation was started because Sterling, a father of five, was selling CDs in front of a convenience store.

Castile was shot after being stopped for a broken taillight. The aftermath of the shooting was captured on video by his girlfriend, a passenger in the car. According to news reports, Castile told the police he was (legally) armed. When asked to produce his license, he reached for his pocket. Police claim that he was reaching for his gun and shot him to death. And so it goes in America.

Black Lives Matter. Or is it All Lives Matter? Or, according to Dartmouth College's Young Republicans, Blue Lives Matter? The slogans are a distraction from the real issue. Yes, policemen's lives matter. All lives matter. But the reality in America is that Black Lives Matter Less.

Predictably and justifiably, citizens of color and their white allies are outraged by the latest shootings. We can expect escalating protests, promises of full investigation and the likely exoneration of the police involved. This is the default pattern. Holding police responsible in the deaths of black boys and men is the rare exception, not the rule of law. In America, it's not that black lives don't matter. It's that Black Lives Matter Less.

The victims in nearly every case I've cited are vilified after the fact, thereby tacitly justifying the abuse of power. Eric Garner was selling cigarettes. Alton Sterling was selling CDs and had a minor criminal record. Philando Castile had a broken taillight. All over the country, folks of color are painfully aware that they may be stopped at any time for a crime known as DWB - driving while black. Black Lives Matter Less.

White men carry assault weapons in big box stores to demonstrate their unfettered right to bear arms. A black man, John Crawford III, was shot to death for picking a BB gun off the shelf of a Walmart, a crime known as SWB - shopping while black. As I've written before, most every student of color in my school has been profiled, stopped and frisked or followed in a store. Few or no white students report these experiences. Black Lives Matter Less.

And yet, when a police officer shoots a black man or boy without apparent provocation, we are expected to believe that race was not a relevant variable. It was illegal cigarettes, a toy gun, sales of CDs, a broken taillight, or a failure to immediately comply with an order.

Yes, Black Lives Matter Less. We are steeped in a racist culture. Generations of black folks were enslaved, unable to vote, unable to own property, unable to accumulate the social and economic capital that most white Americans enjoy. Contemporary manifestations of this ugly legacy are everywhere, unless you're blind: poverty rates, incarceration rates, well-documented bias in employment and many others. Spare me the "I'm white and I'm poor" argument or the "look at Oprah Winfrey!" Racism is a vicious, systemic reality that cannot be disproven by anecdote.

For all of my life, black men have been cast as villains and portrayed as less than fully human (Google "caricatures of Barack Obama"). Deeply flawed and highly publicized sociological nonsense claims that black people are less intelligent (The Bell Curve as one odious example, despite clear, less-publicized research that identifies racism and oppression, not lesser intelligence, as the cause of suppressed performance on standardized measures. Many Americans have a deep, subconscious conviction that black men are more dangerous and less intelligent than the white majority.

The details and legal implications of every one of these cases are unique, but the pattern is clear. Black boys and men are more likely to be shot by the police, even when all other variables have been accounted for. When policemen reared in this culture begin each interaction with a deeply ingrained fear of blackness and a subconscious belief of their own superiority, the outcome is not altogether surprising.

All lives matter. But in America, Black Lives Matter Less.