If you live long enough, you become aware of this inconvenient truth: Bad things have to happen to white people before there is a groundswell of support for righting wrongs that people of color have suffered for years without sufficient redress.
Roland Martin, the host of a daily news show on the TV One network, began his broadcast Monday this way: “I told y’all that the only way this thing was going to change is when somebody white got shot and killed. Oh, how a brother was right.”
Like many people, he was talking about what happened in Minneapolis to Justine Damond.
There seems to be no good reason for Ms. Damond to be dead. She was apparently coming to meet police, whom she called after hearing noises that led her to believe someone was being harmed in an alley near her home, when she was gunned down by what appears to be a trigger-happy officer responding to her 911 call on the night of July 15. An unarmed woman. In her pajamas.
The uproar that has ensued is justified. But if you live long enough as a black person in America, you have seen the broad outlines of this scenario time and again involving black victims — just without this level of outrage by white people. Justine Damond was not just a victim. She was white and blonde. That has made her relatable to more people than, say, a black man killed in a Minneapolis suburb by a trigger-happy cop, who was acquitted in that case last month. Adding to the tragedy of the death of Ms. Damond — and making all this more irresistible as a news story — is that she was a beloved peacemaker and a bride-to-be.
So much about this shooting death is inexplicable. Because neither of the two police officers who responded to Ms. Damond’s 911 calls bothered to turn on his body camera, there are no images to help us understand. But black and brown people in this country have come to know that even when there is video, that is not necessarily enough to convince a lot of people that there is a policing problem in this country.
Video was not enough when Rodney King was beaten in Los Angeles in 1991. Video was not enough when Eric Garner was choked to death in New York City in 2014. With the death of Philando Castile following a traffic stop outside Minneapolis last year, there was police video of the shooting as well as video streamed for the world to see via Facebook as his girlfriend narrated his death; yet these images were not enough to overcome the cop’s insistence that he feared for his life. That prompted the humorist Trevor Noah to observe, “In America it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.”
In this latest incident, even without video and before any witnesses have come forward, Justine Damond’s death has already resulted in the firing of the Minneapolis police chief. There are calls for better training of police officers. When the Black Lives Matter movement has sought such responses in situations where blacks have been killed, they have often been castigated as too-racially-sensitive troublemakers.
To people who ask me why everything always comes down to race, I respond: Because it does. That has been this nation’s truth since American European colonies were established on this continent in the 17th century.
Look at what is happening with the opioid crisis. So long as black and brown people were the faces of addiction and drug-related crime, lawmakers were perfectly fine with the tough law-and-order approach. But now that white people in New England and in the Rust Belt are opioid victims, there is a sudden interest in public health solutions rather than punitive measures. To persuade reluctant senators to sign onto a stalled Trumpcare bill that would replace the Affordable Care Act, there was talk of making more money available to address the effects of opioid abuse. They could care less about addiction on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore. It’s all about white addicts in “Red State” America.
These truths are self evident and unfortunate.
The urgency to resolve what media call “still unanswered questions” in Ms. Damond’s death should persist when the deceased is black or brown. But having witnessed too many such instances in the past, including the death of Freddie Gray here in Baltimore, I doubt I’ll live long enough to see colorblind equity and justice.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.