Editor’s Note: Johnita P. Due is Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for WarnerMedia News & Sports. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
One was eating ice cream.
One was playing video games with her 8 year-old nephew.
Shot by police while in their own homes.
Are Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson the “perfect” victims to galvanize the nation in a sustained movement to hold law enforcement accountable for use of deadly and excessive force against African-Americans? Or will they be viewed as the exceptions? Will the outrage fade with time until the next “perfect” victims lose their lives?
Will America be as outraged if the next victims aren’t so “perfect”?
If they’ve allegedly stolen cigarillos from a convenience store? Think of Mike Brown.
Or if they’re selling cigarettes on the street? Think of Eric Garner.
If they are pulled over for a traffic stop and calmly mention they have a licensed firearm? Think of Philando Castille.
If they are running away after being pulled over for a traffic stop? Think of Walter Scott.
If they’re wandering naked in a parking lot? Think of Anthony Hill.
Twelve year-old Tamir Rice was close to “perfect” except he was playing with a toy gun.
In some of these cases, some measure of justice was attained for the victims; in others it was not. But none of that changes how society has sought to elevate some victims over others.
Social justice movements and the media have often sought to shine a spotlight on the “perfect” victims to rouse the nation’s conscience. Think of Rosa Parks, the quiet seamstress who was only trying to sit on the bus after a long, tiring day of work. Think of Emmett Till, the handsome 14 year-old visiting his relatives in Mississippi from Chicago. Think of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Think of all of the neatly dressed college students like my mother Patricia Stephens Due who quietly sat at dime store lunch counters reading books asking for nothing other than to be served.
This spotlight on the “perfect” victims recognizes the public’s need to find a victim “relatable” or sympathetic in order to care. Sadly, time and time again, the fact that someone is the victim of discrimination or worse — violence — hasn’t been enough. In fact, many victims have been discredited in the media as part of defense strategies while the perpetrators of the violence have been elevated to sympathetic status.
But in the case of police or state violence and practices, we must be careful not to limit our outrage or attention to the killings of only the seemingly “perfect” victims.
An analysis of a US Police Shooting Database of data from 2011-2014, the year Michael Brown was killed, showed that the probability of being shot by police was about 3.49 times more likely for unarmed African-Americans compared to unarmed white Americans. More recent research shows that police kill more than 300 black Americans – at least a quarter of whom are unarmed– annually.
Maybe Atatiana Jefferson was a little more “perfect” than Botham Jean. She was a woman. Being killed by the police is a leading cause of death of black men and boys — one in 1,000 will die that way, making them 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police officers as white men and boys. Yet we’ve all seen in Jefferson’s case and others that African-American women have not escaped the use of excessive or unjustifiable force.
We are in the midst of a fatal epidemic that has afflicted this nation since its inception. Police shootings of African-Americans on a disproportionate and unjustifiable basis is but a symptom – just as the brutal torture and lynching of thousands of African-Americans was a symptom.
The epidemic is the irrational ascription of dark (or darker) skin to badness or evil or “imperfection.”
For the past couple of years, my father John D. Due, Jr., a freedom lawyer and civil rights veteran, has been trying to understand the why. Why is there such a fatal bias against people with dark skin? He has focused on a theory about the Black Plague. His theory is that as whites saw entire populations throughout Europe wiped out from the disease that caused their skin to blacken from necrosis or gangrene, they were traumatized and ultimately associated dark skin with the disease they feared. He believes the resulting prejudice and discrimination against Africans was ingrained in the minds of Europeans through cultural conditioning and teachings. My father, who turned 85 this week, shares his theory in emails with colleagues from the civil rights movement and other community leaders and friends.
Some may dismiss it as the musings of an elder civil rights statesman and some find it controversial because it could suggest a lack of culpability for racism. To me, it represents a clear yearning to find the root cause of this epidemic of fatal bias in policing — based on one’s skin color — so that it can be treated and cured. The socio-political consequences of the Black Plague theory as well as more traditional social identity theory which holds that humans are innately tribal and elevate those who are similar and denigrate those who are different are the same: When denigration has the power, authority and resources of law enforcement behind it, it becomes deadly.
All of the social psychological influences and cultural conditioning that make police officers’ hearts beat faster and adrenaline pump stronger when they see people with dark skin must be confronted and should not be enabled or rationalized away. We see this epidemic has infected not only white police officers but Latinos and blacks as well.
Police departments need to be held accountable for treating this condition in their officers — and police officers who unjustifiably shoot African-Americans must be held accountable by prosecutors and juries — so that de-escalation and demilitarization become just as normal in interactions with people with dark skin as it is in interactions with people with white skin.
Until we as a society are outraged and spurred to action not only when the victims seem “perfect,” but by the epidemic itself resulting in a disproportionate number of African-Americans being killed by police every day, then we will continue to be infected and ultimately will succumb to it.