A memorial is seen at the scene where Australian college student Christopher Lane, 23, of Melbourne, was found dead of a gunshot wound on Friday in Duncan, Oklahoma, August 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Bill Waugh)
As the nation takes stock of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, I’m listening to a news program playing a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking of peace and reconciliation and mountaintops to be crested. I’m also online, watching my screen blink with discussions about current events like the dismissal of a racial harassment suit against Paula Deen and the debate over New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. The decades-long span of unsolved issues and endless crises fills me with sadness and unease.
According to a recent Pew poll, “Blacks were nearly three times as likely as whites to be living in poverty. And the median net worth of white households was 14 times the median net worth of black households.” But this disparate reality is felt very differently: nearly twice as many blacks as whites feel that blacks are treated less fairly by police and the courts; blacks are three times more likely than whites to feel that blacks are treated less fairly in employment, education, hospitals and stores. These findings are consistent with a trend documented by a 2011 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science: whites now see anti-white bias as a bigger problem than bias against blacks—or as the study’s title puts it: “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.”
It is one problem to have immense disparities. It is quite another when those inequalities are rendered invisible by those who stoke the fears and resentments that apparently feed the nonempirical perceptions of many Americans. Take the media treatment of the searingly tragic murder of Christopher Lane, a white Australian student attending a university in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship. Three teens have been arrested for shooting him in the back while he was jogging, apparently because they were “bored.” But while that so-called boredom is being mined for all its shock value, it is far too cavalier a way to describe the well of such inhuman callousness. Indeed, together the three suspects had histories of assault, little to no schooling, imprisoned parents and untreated trauma from gun deaths in their own families.
Initial reports were that all three suspects were black. In fact, one of them was white, though one right-wing outlet blithely and wrongly substituted the image of an uninvolved, angry-looking black man in his place. But before this mistake was revealed, the pre-existing liturgy was pushing the rapture that only demagoguery can create. Lines were drawn so that “gun culture” referred to those white people ostensibly exercising their Second Amendment rights to stockpile weaponry for the apocalypse, while “gang culture” referred to those black people (rarely accorded the imagined grace of Second Amendment rights) who also stockpile weaponry for the apocalypse. In either case, some of these arms end up in the hands of the unstable or mentally ill, or children, or the outlandishly aggrieved, or the intentionally criminal. America is not only where Christopher Lane was killed, but also where—if we want to play the “reversals” game—the very next week, a black woman named Antoinette Tuff talked a disturbed young white man into putting down his AK-47 after he walked into an elementary school full of minority kids threatening a massacre. She did so by speaking to him in human, not bestial, terms. “I tried to commit suicide last year,” she said. “We all go through something in life.” America is also where there are more mass murders like Newtown and Aurora than anyplace on the planet other than war zones—and where, every day, more than 100 people of every stripe kill themselves, half by gunfire.