Two things recently happened within days of each other that again tossed a hideous glare on the cheapness of black lives.
First was a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which found that young black males are still at mortal risk of being gunned down by police. It’s as if the mass protests over the slayings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Ezell Ford and Eric Garner never happened. Or that Black Lives Matter never existed. The peril posed to young black males of being shot to death by police has gone unabated.
The other thing that happened was the trial of a grocery store clerk in Memphis who was tried and convicted on Aug. 16 of second-degree murder in the death of Dorian Harris, an alleged shoplifter. The killing of this unarmed teenager was horrific enough. But what was even more eye-catching was that Harris need not have died after being shot. Receiving no medical attention, he bled to death. His body was found two days later in the backyard of a home in the same block as the store.
But there’s more. The study published by the prestigious academy garnered almost no media attention. The trial and conviction of the store clerk came more than a year after the Harris killing, and there was little public attention paid to the case.
There are two reasons for this. As painful as it is to say it, one is police slayings of young blacks has become something of a new norm. It happens so often that it no longer evokes any sustained outcries. The killings appear to have had a numbing effect on many blacks, much of the media and the public in general. There seems to be no end to them and there’s frustration that nothing can be done about them. In the rare cases in which cops are tried for the slaying of an unarmed black they are routinely acquitted. It almost seems like a pointless exercise, worse, a charade. This further deepens cynicism and deadens hope that justice will ever be served when blacks are slain with only the flimsiest justification.
The Memphis clerk was not a cop. He was arrested and convicted. But even here there was a special leniency since jurors rejected the prosecution contention that the murder was premediated. This would have drawn a much stiffer sentence.
The legal and social footprint on these slayings has by now been well-established. It goes like this: First comes the shooting. Then there is the character assassination of the victim. Police officials hold press conferences, leak documents and orchestrate a media campaign to depict the victims as criminals, or deadbeat dads, or deviants. Then it’s an acquittal or a light sentence for the shooter. The inference is that this was a bad guy who got what he deserved. Harris was depicted as a thief who stole, of all things, a $2 can of beer.
They get away with this by anchoring their depictions on the ancient but serviceable litany of stereotypes and negative images of young black males — terrifying caricatures that people still harbor.
There have been countless studies, surveys and candid admissions from many that people still cringe with terror in the presence of black males. In fact, many of the old stereotypes about poverty, crime and blacks remain just as frozen in time. Much of the public still perceives those most likely to commit crimes as poor, jobless and black. Race and poverty and crime are firmly stitched together in the public’s mind. Once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out.
In 2003 and 2008, Penn State University researchers found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope-peddling gang bangers and drive-by shooters. The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn’t commit a specific crime whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African American. Immediately after the election of former President Obama in 2008, researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. Many whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn’t commit them.
The “normalizing” of this violence against blacks means a slaying is one day in and one day out in the news. Then it’s back to business as usual. That was the case with the academic study and the Harris killing. It seems the short-lived Black Lives Matter movement did little to make black lives matter, or change the indifference toward those lives.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and political analyst, is the author of “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He is also a columnist and a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network