On 24 April in the town where I live, a wonderful town that I love, a woman was shot to death in front of her four-year-old son, Joshua. According to authorities, she was a college student.
A young woman, obviously invested in education, undoubtedly with dreams of a good life for herself and her child, struck down. It’s a sad story, a tragedy worthy of deep sorrow and serious reflection about gun violence and gun policy, especially when added to the fact that it was the fourth fatal shooting in my town in a week. Despite the obvious potential of such a story to poke at the hearts and minds of anyone who hears about it, most people won’t hear about it. It won’t get in the 24-hour news cycle. And it certainly will not spark a national debate about gun control. Why? Because the woman who was killed, Donitra Henderson, was a black woman and she died on a street corner in Oakland, a predominantly black and Latino town, in front of her black child.
Gun violence affects black and Latino people in poor, inner-city neighborhoods on a regular basis. As The Washington Post reported, black people are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun crime, and yet our deaths by gun are much less likely to result in national conversations in which liberals and conservatives duke it out over the second amendment. We become statistics, just one more added to the number of gun deaths in the US in a particular year, and that’s all.
As I wrote in my recent blog post, “Hey, White liberals: A Word On the Boston Bombings, the Suffering of White children, and the Erosion of Empathy,” if you’re not white, your tragic death doesn’t feel quite as tragic to the American media or the collective American conscience, which are inextricably linked. It does not inspire the kind of national outrage and grief that white deaths, and especially middle-class and affluent white deaths, inspire.
There is a certain level of indifference in this country to the deaths of people of color. But there is also a double standard in the narrative around gun violence, depending on where it takes place and who is affected by it. When it happens to wealthy white folks in the suburbs, it’s a tragedy visited upon those who didn’t deserve it. When it happens to black and Latino people in a city, it’s our own fault.
Take, for example, President Obama’s speech in Chicago about gun violence where he talked about policy change, but also focused a lot on the structure of the black family, saying:
“There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families – which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.”
Compare that to speeches he made following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a predominantly white area, where a gunman murdered 26 people, including 20 children. The president never connected the violence there with the structure of anybody’s family or with the failure of any white parents. Even though the shooter, Adam Lanza, was raised by a single mother. Instead, he promised the people of Newtown that lawmakers would stand beside them and create policy to protect them. Those are two very different messages.
One reason this double standard is so easy to apply is that the question of why gun violence happens so much in inner cities is brushed over or ignored. There are many factors: the effects of racism on individuals and communities, failed education systems, high unemployment, etc. These are rarely discussed in connection to gun violence on a national level.
Without that connection, and thus with no greater social ills to help explain it, it’s seen simply as the fault of the people who live in those places, as if they have some inherent defect in their families and their communities. And because it’s our fault and not, as in the case of violence against middle-class white people, a national tragedy, it does not warrant a national conversation.
This double standard leads to the further devaluing of black and Latino lives. It also contributes to the sporadic nature of the national gun control conversation itself. Because gun control is only talked about on a national level when multiple murders happen in affluent white places, it’s talked about a few times a year at most.
If the conversation were shifted to include the tragedies of people in the inner city, if our lives were valued enough by the American media and the collective US conscience to warrant that conversation, it would be an ongoing debate. Maybe then it would at least have a chance at leading to some actual change. Which would be great. Especially for those of us who are most often affected by it.