Which lives matter?

Some well-intentioned Americans are still wondering why the term “All Lives Matter” is being criticized at this moment.

It might seem that the expression “Black Lives Matter” is an argument for special treatment of African-Americans. Out-of-context, this call for the recognition of the worth of only one group’s lives might seem like a rejection of the American ideal of equal treatment under the law. Context, in this case, matters very much.

Since I teach students from a wide variety of backgrounds, for years I had to explain the United States as a split-screen experience. For many Americans, police are the public servants who keep the peace and enforce the rule of law. For many other Americans, police are instigators of violence. That seems like a contradiction, but both perceptions are true and accurate. The fact that some people were surprised at the “Police-as-threat” perception is a really clear indicator of how segregated our society has become.

Segregated? Didn’t we ban segregation with the Shelley v. Kramer (1948) and Brown v. Board (1954) Supreme Court decisions? Didn’t we reinforce de-segregation with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977? Unfortunately, no. Massey & Denton (1993) used U.S. Census data beginning in 1900 to show that residential racial segregation steadily increased over the 20th century. In the 27 years since they published, scholars have found that the trend of increasing segregation continues. So if you are not black, the chances that you have a black neighbor are lower today than ever before. The chance that you will hear an African-American viewpoint from someone whom you personally know are consequentially extremely low.

The rise of the internet does not compensate for direct interpersonal circles of trust. The current structure of internet-based social media tends to amplify extreme points of view. We find the answers we want to find and reinforce the narratives that we want to hear, rather than expand our understanding of the world from sources that we do not personally trust. The information may be out there, but there is no automatic mechanism to translate information into understanding, much less compassion. There is, however, a natural human preference to reinforce the narratives we know, in order to make sense of the world. That preference is recognized by for-profit media who sell us the stories we want to hear.

Improvements to the internet have not helped. Smartphones are the newest technology to transform cyberspace. In 1991, the video-capture of LAPD’s beating of Rodney King was fortuitous–not because beatings were rare, but because video-capture devices were rare. What smartphone video-capture reveals is actual events that might defy the story we tell ourselves about the character of our society. Unfortunately raw footage is not sufficient to overcome the mistrust of unfamiliar “others” in a highly-segregated society, as we see in non-prosecutions and acquittals in cases from Rodney King to Eric Garner.

It might seem that the people you disagree with “should know better.” But in practice, residential segregation has reinforced a segregation of communities into increasingly disconnected conversations–a process I call discursive segmentation. Understanding does not cross these barriers very easily. A video of an unarmed, cooperative black ban being murdered by a police officer with other officers complicitly standing by might be a shocking surprise, if you live in a community where you don’t spend social time with African-Americans. It might still seem implausible that police-murders are so frequent that they can only be described as a systemic pattern of behavior. Long lists of names of African-Americans murdered by police may seem abstract, if this has not happened to anyone you personally know. At a distance, it might feel like the appropriate response is to invoke the American ideal of equal treatment under the law. Yes, all lives should matter equally under American law. “Should” is the important verb-tense here, because the gap between an ideal-condition expressed by “should” and the practices that “are” is too large to be considered legitimate by an increasing number of Americans.

During the 1990s the Italian scholar Giorgio Agamben studied the modern political logic of genocide. He exhumed an ancient Roman concept which helped explain the process: the concept of Homo sacer. In Roman law, a person could be condemned to an exceptional (“sacred”, or set-apart) category. Such a de-personalized person could be killed, with no consequences to the killer: no prosecution, not even social disapproval. In law and in practice, the life of a person designated Homo sacer did not matter. Agamben found a parallel in the way that the Third Reich dehumanized Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and disabled people. These exceptional groups were set apart in order to reinforce political and identity-solidarity among Germans. It was the promotion of violent partisanship as a core process of modern democratic politics.

Americans tend to portray “the Nazis” in almost cartoonish fashion, such as in Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Italian scholars like Agamben have a more sober view. Not only did Italians embrace facismo nazionalismo before Germans, but Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra entered Italian politics, and the Lega party is an openly nationalist political party. The American caricature of Nazis as a monstrous group of foreign villains does not hold up for Italians, who see the Third Reich as very close to home. Agamben argues that the concept of Homo sacer helps explain modern politics more generally: it is a cautionary tale for all of us.

In practice, American police officers frequently murder unarmed African-Americans with (1) no legal consequences (2) no harm to their career and (3) no social condemnation. In actual practice, this pattern sends the signal that black lives do not matter. Therefore, declaring that black lives do matter is an argument that African-Americans should be treated the same way under U.S. law as any other Americans. It is also an argument that, at the moment, the lives of African-Americans are not treated equally. Likewise, the use of “All Lives Matter” as a counter-argument sounds like a defense of the status-quo. In this status-quo, equal-protection remains an un-realized ideal, and police murders persist with impunity.

Beyond a grudging acceptance of Black Lives Matter

Police officers are quick to use deadly force in the United States because many police officers have been killed by citizens in our heavily-armed society. In California, the Highway Patrol asked for military-grade weapons because they encountered military-grade weapons among drug smugglers. These may have been the white cannabis-growers in rural northern California, but through the American lens the image of “drug dealer” has a specific skin color. If that seems unfair, consider how the people you know would interpret these two headlines:

Armed protesters disrupt the Wisconsin legislature
Armed black protesters disrupt the Wisconsin legislature

One of these statements is true, but the fictional statement is far more feared. That fear, the depth of that phobos, is the depth to which racism is embedded in us.

Yet even as we expose deep-seated racism in the U.S., it is also true that we should ensure the safety of police officers, since we expect police to operate under very dangerous conditions. How to improve their safety and well-being? (1) Serious gun-law reform, (2) expansion of public social services including mental healthcare, and (3) psychological support and deeper training for the officers themselves. Unfortunately, the same conservatives who argue that “Blue lives matter” also oppose precisely these three reforms. Police officers, therefore, are left feeling paranoid about enforcing law in a heavily-armed, de-regulated society with pitifully poor emotional support. The stressful conditions of policing cause many police officers to become exceptionally unsuitable to perform the jobs they are required to do.

Which brings me to a concluding point. Since I returned from Afghanistan to teach in American universities in 2018, I have been getting an increasing sense among students from all backgrounds: that all the significant events which shape America today are crimes. No student has actually said this to me, perhaps because I am seen as part of an older, 20th-century Generation-X. But if the acquisition of all territory in the U.S. was criminal, if the origins of police as slave-patrols were criminal, if the status quo of any year from 1789 to 2020 is criminal, then it seems that my students regard the American ideals of equality and justice not just as infeasible, not just as unfulfilled, but rather as a distraction that justifies a criminal enterprise only addressed to the people who benefit from it. And the fraction of the American population that actually benefits from living in the United States is shrinking. This may not be immediately apparent to the beneficiaries, who live in social and spatial segregation from the rest of the country. Can this status-quo be maintained? Should it be maintained? What will be the cost?


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