The last several days have shaken America to its core. We’ve seen violence by police against citizens, juxtaposed with violence by citizens against police. The sound of gunfire oozes from our streets, our televisions, and our radios. Every interaction we have bubbles with grief, anger, and frustration. Those interactions metastasize over the fact that it is impossible to escape the political nature of violence that involves the use of force by, and against, the state itself.
In the wake of the killing of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, a familiar refrain began, which we should have avoided: victim blaming. The blaming of victims takes many forms, including the dredging up of irrelevant details of a victim’s personal life. The dredgers insist that these details provide justification for the victim’s own death, as if there is any past behavior that can justify extrajudicial killings by representatives of the state. Perhaps more disturbing is the argument that, had the victim been more compliant to law enforcement, he would have survived. This argument not only holds men of color to a radically different standard than the ones to which their White peers are held, but also relieves police, agents of the state sworn to protect citizens, of their duty to protect, while leaving those officers unaccountable for unprovoked violence.
After the events in Dallas, I worry that a similar strain of victim blaming might emerge, only this time the dredgers might intend to justify the murder of police officers, most of whom were working to provide a safe space for the peaceful protestors advocating for Black lives. We have an institutionally racist criminal justice system, but that cannot justify indiscriminate violence against individuals in that system. We have a significant problem with police violence, particularly against members of the Black community, but there is no progress or glory found in pursuing bloodshed as vengeance. Neither the color of your skin nor the color of your uniform can justify your death.
What did not change Thursday night is the urgency of protecting, and advocating for, Black lives. The murder of the officers in Dallas is tragic, but their deaths cannot distract us from the chilling fact that our criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of color in a way that perpetuates racial disparities. Nobody deserves to die, and saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that other lives are worth less. “Black Lives Matter” is the rallying cry for an actual movement with goals and political objectives; while not everyone who says “All Lives Matter” intends to derail that conversation, that’s what the appropriated counter-phrasing is designed to do.
What did not change Thursday night is that, in not a single case this week, did the presence of a firearm protect anyone. Guns lurked in both the foreground and shadows in each of these public eruptions of violence. A protestor was wrongly identified as a murder suspect because he carried a gun publicly at the Dallas protest. Police died because of the facile access to tactical firearms. Neither Alton Sterling nor Philando Castile were protected by the guns they may or may not have been carrying.
What did not change Thursday night is the fact that race is an important topic of conversation in this country. Using racially explicit language is not an incitement to violence or division. Using racially explicit language – words like “Black” and “White,” in all of their capitalized glory – is critical to understanding both the history and the present of racial difference in this country. Difference is not division, just as ignorance is not an antidote. The devastating consequence of American racial bias is that, while the people who committed the horrific acts against police undoubtedly will be tried and convicted for their actions, the police who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile almost certainly will not be held accountable.
None of those things changed in Dallas. The only two things that changed after the tragedy in Dallas are that more people died senselessly, and that an already tense political climate became even more combustible. The answer is not to back down from demands that Black lives be valued; rather we must reassert that we can declare the full humanity of Black Americans while simultaneously valuing the lives of others.