In two op-eds this week for TheRoot.com and The Baltimore Sun, Sherrilyn Ifill focuses attention on real outrages — policy choices and structural inequalities that disproportionately impede the growth of black communities around the country. In “Forget Duck Dynasty; There Are Important Civil Rights Battles to Fight,” she writes that “the time we spend addressing [outrages like Paula Deen and Duck Dynasty] distracts us from the kind of focus and attention that produces real, meaningful civil rights gains.” Her op-ed in The Baltimore Sun responds to recent comments made by Baltimore Police Commissioner Betty that the city’s high murder rate is not a casue for concern among “everyday citizens” because those killed are mostly gang members. “But the chief should also take the lead in reminding Baltimoreans that the death of hundreds of Baltimore’s citizens — whoever they are — diminishes us all,” she writes.
When the PR director of a digital-media company tweeted a racist remark about AIDS in Africa before boarding a flight from the United States to South Africa, thousands of Twitter followers tracked her flight. Thousands pressured cable channel A&E to suspend reality star Phil Robertson from his popular show, Duck Dynasty, after the publication of an interview in GQ magazine in which he made homophobic remarks and insisted that black people were happy under Jim Crow.
The previous week, Fox News host Megyn Kelly drew outrage when she insisted that both Santa and Jesus are white, and comedian Steve Martin pulled an off-color joke from his Twitter account and offered an apology. Political commentator Peggy Noonan decried the unsanitary condition of modern airplanes and worried that “a Senegalese tourist with typhus” might have been the most recent occupier of her airplane seat.
In short, December was marked by a rash of racist and offensive remarks by public figures, drawing outrage and protests from large swaths of the public. But the frequency and number of these incidents in the last month of the year and the intensity of our focus on these occurrences should give us pause. It’s easy to see how policing the increasingly outrageous and offensive comments of public figures could be a full-time job, and one with uneven results (Kelly remains unrepentant and the Duck Dynasty guy is scheduled to be back on the air). And the time we spend addressing these outrages distracts us from the kind of focus and attention that produces real, meaningful civil rights gains.
In a television interview, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts offered reassurance that the city’s stubbornly high murder rate is not a cause for concern among “everyday citizens.” Instead, Mr. Batts has explained, more than 80 percent of the murders are gang member on gang member, drug-dealer on drug-dealer.
The chief’s remarks may be factually accurate, but they also reinforce a view that underlies the response to inner city violence in too many American cities — the idea that violent crime and murder is unworthy of our outrage so long as the victims are gang members or participants in the drug trade. Commissioner Batts’ comments appear to go a step further — they suggest that we should temper our concern about the city’s murder rate precisely because of who the hundreds of victims are and because of their assumed criminal conduct.
But the value of human life should not be contingent on the poor or good life choices made by an individual crime victim. Without question, those who join gangs or feel compelled to join the world of illegal drug sales have made poor choices, and they must surely understand that the world of which they are a part devalues individual lives in service of a culture of retribution, loyalty and greed. They must take responsibility for the choices they make. But we are not free from partial or indirect responsibility for their decisions. The absence of steady, well-paying jobs and of quality education that properly prepares young people for meaningful work; the lack of affordable housing; the proliferation of city policies that have led to the concentration of poverty in pockets all over Baltimore; and the lack of support afforded to working families in the form of safe, accessible public transportation and economic development all rest at the doorstep of the “everyday citizens” of Baltimore. Any effort to distance ourselves from the tragedy of 235 lost lives of mostly young people is misplaced.