OPINION: It’s the dehumanization, stupid. For centuries, there has been a rich history of people of color being systematically dehumanized—often with the legal, codified right to do so.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Did Jayland Walker deserve to be shot at least 60 times out of a possible 90 rounds fired? Hopefully, any reasonable person would say no. And yet, it happened, on camera while the 25-year-old Akron, Ohio, native was unarmed. If we can all agree that this tragedy shouldn’t have happened, the next logical question is did it have to happen? The officers involved in his death will almost certainly argue that they had no choice because they feared for their lives and/or because they believed Walker to be armed and potentially still dangerous.
But the predominately white and overwhelmingly male perpetrators of mass shootings all over this country are known to be armed and known to still be an active threat when law enforcement arrives on the scene. Sometimes they have barricaded themselves or have body armor and multiple unused rounds of ammunition with which to defend themselves, and yet very often those suspects are apprehended relatively unharmed.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with subduing and arresting a criminal suspect without using lethal force, in fact, it’s arguably ideal. It becomes much easier to deduce motive or whether the killer had co-conspirators if they are alive when they’re brought to justice.
But it is curious, to say the least, that so many unarmed people of color are not afforded the same compassion with which law enforcement routinely engages with mass murderers like Dylann Roof, Payton Gendron or Patrick Crusius.
So what accounts for this disparity? It’s the dehumanization, stupid.
Dehumanization is all the rage these days. When it comes to the 2020 election, millions of Americans insist that millions of their fellow citizens either don’t exist or are somehow illegitimate. The Supreme Court dehumanized every woman capable of bearing children by determining that they don’t necessarily know how best to use their own bodies. And of course, for centuries, there has been a rich history of people of color being systematically dehumanized—often with the legal, codified right to do so.
And yet, we can’t help but be surprised on some level since the proliferation of mass shootings continues to grow and because they can frequently be committed at random (as at least initially appears to be the case with the most recent mass shooting in Highland Park) one would think it would increase many Americans’ empathy for someone like Walker, who leaves behind devastated friends and family who will never enjoy another moment with him—and who are already reeling from the tragic death of his fiancee a month ago as a result of a hit-and-run.
How is his family supposed to cope with this? Did they deserve this? What crime could Walker have committed to justify this overwhelming show of lethal force? Those questions are all too rarely asked. We do however like to interrogate the mitigating circumstances that may serve as motivation for mass shooters. Questions are almost immediately raised about their mental health, and if they are young (as they often are) whether they were exposed to violent movies and video games.
Laura Ingraham blamed weed. Tucker Carlson blamed woke women. The infamous Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has already circulated a debunked photograph to support her theory that the Highland Park shooter was motivated by antidepressants. And most recently, she has embraced the patently absurd and horrifically insensitive premise that the entire shooting was a left-wing plot to push for more gun control.
But does any of that really matter when someone has an AR-15 in their hands? Seven lives (and potentially more) have been taken—including the parents of a 2-year-old boy—Jayland Walker never did anything even close to that, but in the eyes of many he is as much if not more of a monster than the white man with a gun firing indiscriminately in broad daylight. A man who, according to his own confession, was originally intending to commit a second mass murder that day.
It is, of course, very possible that gun loyalists, desperate to talk about anything other than weapons and the carnage they are capable of, try to shift the focus to psychoanalyzing a shooter, but race is also an inescapable part of the equation.
Whether it be Rodney King, Michael Brown or countless others—there seems to be a national investment in characterizing people of color as unstoppable beasts who can single-handedly overwhelm armed authority figures with no apparent concern for their own livelihood. This is precisely why the Black Lives Matter movement—whose goals are eminently reasonable, and in a just world, would be achievable—is necessary and why it is perceived as such a threat and so many people take great pains to discredit it.
Of course, if you convince yourself that people who don’t look like you or think like you aren’t really human and don’t value their own humanity, it can help you justify the unthinkable. You can deny them the right to vote, their freedom to travel without fear and much more. Unarmed Black men getting gunned down by police has become an accepted fact of life for far too many of us, in part because as a society we have all downgraded the humanity of Black men, so much so that even a person firing on a crowd of unarmed people in the hopes of killing as many people as they can, can engender more respect for their bodily autonomy.
There have been glimmers of hope. Just two years ago (although it feels like much longer) the nation saw unprecedented multiracial protests in support of police reform but two successive presidential administrations have not tackled this clear and present danger to many of our lives because in Trump’s case he refused to and in Biden’s because he lacks the support in the Senate to do so.
Where does that leave us? I have a Black and brown child who is just 8 months old. They are thankfully oblivious to how afraid her parents are—both of mass killers and in many cases the authority figures who are supposed to protect us from them.
I don’t know how I will explain to them that she will soon have to worry about what they wear and how they look, that the police may presume they are armed. I will have to explain why their parents are scared to be in most public gatherings because mass killers target them and show no compunction about targeting children, and sometimes they mean to. I will have to explain that a majority of the country will think this is all wrong—both the proliferation of assault weapons and racially biased policing—but will feel powerless to do anything about either because our nation’s politics are perpetually broken. And I will have to explain why it was necessary and continues to be for us to keep asserting and defending our own humanity, at great cost.
I don’t know how I will explain all this. But I hope we all live long enough that I get the chance.
Adam Howard is a senior associate producer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and a producer on the “Full Release with Samantha Bee” podcast. He has written about pop culture, sports and politics for The Daily Beast, Playboy, and NBC News and has recently curated an exhibition of the history of blaxploitation for the Poster House museum in New York City.
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