In America, is a white life still worth more than a black one?

Story highlights

  • Diamond Reynolds live-streams the aftermath of the killing of her fiancé, Philando Castile
  • Gene Seymour: It's easy to get mad. It's harder to empathize

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Excessive force used by police resulting in the deaths of unarmed black men. It happens again and again. And afterward? Nothing happens -- again and again and again.

What can we do? That's the question we always hear. But the truth is we have always known what to do because people, white AND black, have been telling others what to do -- how to begin, where to start -- for generations. It's not a new question because none of what's happened over the last several hours is new, either.
    Gene Seymour
    Of course, outrage alone doesn't seem to stop any of this. Just ask the families of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. And that's just in the past 48 hours.
    But I'm not just outraged. I'm exasperated, even exhausted with what has become a kind of ritualized response to these killings. The videos are circulated, becoming viral to the point where news outlets cannot ignore them. Protests and demonstrations ensue, and it doesn't seem to matter how nonviolent they are because somebody will find reasons to label them acts of terrorism or worse. Sometimes there are indictments. Always there are inquiries. Satisfaction from the bereaved is sought, demanded. Demotions or other internal sanctions are often the worst that happens to those responsible.
    And that's that. Until the next incident. Or the next video surfaces, with even more graphic and irrefutable evidence. Then the ritual begins again. And that question: What can we do?
    But did anybody ask what to do back in 1974, when Richard Pryor recorded a routine about how black people experience police traffic stops differently than whites? No, but we did laugh when Pryor compared a white person's reaction to a traffic stop ("Here ya go, officer. Glad to be of help, etc., etc.) to that of a black man who says, emphatically and deliberately, "I AM REACHING INTO MY POCKET FOR MY LICENSE ... because I don't want to be no m------------g accident!"
    The shock of recognition may have caused some to wonder. Truth makes you laugh. And everybody took it for truth. What happened in all those cities since happened anyway.
    Did anybody ask what to do in 2002, when Michael Moore released "Bowling for Columbine," his nonfiction film chronicling America's romance with guns? For a large portion of the movie, Moore manages to align much of the mania over the right to bear arms with racism and xenophobia stretching as far back as before the Civil War. At last, I remember thinking, somebody's finally making the right connections!
    Somehow, though, that inquiry trailed off and what most audiences remembered about that film were the final frames showing Moore hectoring Charlton Heston, the actor and onetime president of the National Rifle Association, who was in his 70s and beginning to show the effects of Alzheimer's-related illness.
    I remembered thinking: All you had to do, Michael Moore, was drive that inquiry into race and guns further, sharper and clearer and it's possible that our national dialogue on both these subjects might have actually borne fruit. Instead, you showed yourself bullying an old man.
    And in case some of you still labor under the illusion that these incidents are, in any way, news, check out "Jackson, 1964," a just-published collection of nonfiction pieces by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin about race relations in America that stretch all the way back to the title essay about the perils of registering African-American voters in Mississippi. One of those pieces peers into allegations of excessive police force against black citizens in Seattle. Not this year; not last year or the year before: in 1975.
    There's a line written by Trillin, who is white, in that title essay whose sting feels sharper than ever, especially in these last 48 hours:
    "No sophisticated study of public opinion is needed to establish the fact that in the United States, North or South, a white life is considered to be of more value than a Negro life."
    Keep in mind that Trillin arrived at this dismal assessment in the early 1960s when the pace and convergence of protest and legislation convinced most Americans that transformation was at hand.
    Keep in mind, also, that we HAVE transformed ourselves along the way. But, as Victoria DeLee, a voting rights activist interviewed by Trillin, said as far back as 1971, "It's a hundred percent from what it was, but it's not a hundred percent from what it ought to be."
    We know this. But it doesn't stop the violence. Or the deaths. Or the outrage.
    Outrage is one thing.
    Empathy is quite another.
    It's easy to get mad. It's harder to empathize. That takes imagination. And, collectively, we're not great at that.
    But nothing happens without this investment of imagination. It won't solve everything. Yet it's the only place I feel like going from here.