I know how many people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School (26, not including the perpetrator and his mother) and how many died at the Boston Marathon bombing (3). I know this (without needing to “do a Google”) in part because these horrific events took place rather recently.
I know these numbers for other reasons, too. Both of those tragic moments happened in places where I can imagine myself visiting or strolling; I can easily see my godson’s younger brother as a student at Sandy Hook. And all but a few of those thirty-one people who died were white.
I have never visited a Sikh temple nor have I ever traveled to Pakistan. There are parts of the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) that I might drive through but likely never “visit.” Yet in all of those places adults and children alike have died, violently and recently. I have no idea how many unless I look it up and then search carefully through all the online search results:
Six died at a Wisconsin Sikh temple last August. Since the Sandy Hook shooting last December, 35 have been killed by gun violence in Oakland (10 miles from my house), four of them teenagers. In my own city of Richmond, 7 have been killed, one of them a teenager. (Slate offers a sobering but helpful interactive map of gun violence in the U.S., though the statistics are strangely hard to confirm.) Only God knows, literally, how many have died in U.S. drone strikes overseas. In Pakistan alone since 2004 drones have killed 2,358 people, 175 of them children. (Those numbers are disputed by various reporting agencies, but this animated graphic proves helpful and chilling.)
The vast majority of all those victims were not white.
Now, to be sure, these situations (let alone my memory and attention span) are complex, multi-layered, inflected by news cycles, the “spectacle factor,” and so much more. The troubling fact still remains that I remember or know anything at all about white deaths on the other side of the country and so little about the deaths of people of color in my own backyard. Without resorting to Google yet again, I could not remember how many died just a year ago at Oikos University, a school affiliated with a Korean Presbyterian Church in Oakland (7).
I suspect something deep in the human psyche draws our attention rather naturally to the fate of those who seem most like us. If so, then white people (like me) need urgently to stretch beyond that natural tendency in a country where the vast majority of policy makers are white (and male); in a country where national news media train their spotlight on a small-town elementary school but not on inner-city streets; in a country where significant gun control legislation finally appears on the docket only after mostly white children are killed but not after mostly Asian students are shot by an Asian gunman. (The New York Times Magazine recently published a retrospective piece on the University of Oikos shooting titled, appropriately enough, “The Other School Shooting.”)
We count deaths, but some deaths clearly count more than others. I started pondering that disparity as I sat transfixed (like so many others) by the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I wondered why the whole country seemed fixated there but so rarely on Oakland, Richmond, Atlanta, New York City, or Chicago.
The specter of terrorism is clearly part of the answer. One of the Boston victims (who lost a portion of her leg in the bombing) said that it reminded her immediately of the September 2001 attacks. She was not alone, and that may be part of the problem. A commentator in London recently noted that Americans tend to panic over the prospect of international terrorism (shutting down an entire city) but seem to accept daily gun violence as routine. Those living with such violence, however, consider it anything but “routine” and more like terrorism. (Over the last two years such violence has gone up by 52% in the Bay Area where residents feel “besieged.”)
Since Sandy Hook last December through March 22 of this year, 2, 244 people have been killed by gun violence in the U.S. The demographics lurking behind those statistics are just as significant. White Americans are five times more likely than African Americans to commit suicide with a gun. African Americans are far more likely than white people to be killed by someone else with a gun. Suicide rates are the highest in states with the highest rate of gun ownership and tend to concentrate in rural areas. Homicides involving guns happen far more frequently in our cities. Digest those demographics for a moment and notice the polling data: Nearly 75% of African Americans support tighter gun control legislation while not quite half of white Americans do. (The difference between how we perceive suicide and respond to homicide matters here, too.)
Admittedly, I find statistics numbing and difficult to decipher. More visceral and gripping are the images of those Sandy Hook children and the carnage at a marathon finish line. Mia McKenzie by contrast finds those images numbing in what she names an “erosion of empathy.” Counting only the deaths that appear to count (judged by news media and Congressional action) has slowly worn done her capacity to care. Here’s how she describes it from a blog post I urge all of my white friends to read:
Some of it has to do with the fact that the wars and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for more than a dozen years. For many of the younger folks I know, that’s the better part of their entire lives. It’s a whole third of mine. For a dozen years we have watched as the mainstream media has ignored the deaths of so many brown children, day after year after decade. I mean, they were ignoring the deaths of Black children all over the world, including here, way before that, but we didn’t have to see them ignoring it so blatantly every morning and afternoon and evening and night on TV (that 24-hour news cycle is a bitch; they have time for everything except our stories).
Surely the peculiar faith of Christians has something to say here – peculiar, that is, especially for white Christians in this Easter season as we celebrate the resurrection of a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew executed by an imperial army outside the city gates. Would that death have attracted dozens of television camera crews and even more front page news stories?
Perhaps we need an Eastertide discipline as much as we do a Lenten one. A modest place to begin might be noticing the deaths that count and why they do. The U.S. Congress may have (inadvertently?) done just that by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to four African American girls – fifty years after they were killed in a Birmingham city bombing.