How can so many people in this country — people for whom violence is not the norm — resign themselves to violence simply by relegating it to the category of “street violence” or “black-on-black violence“? When people thoughtlessly repeat this refrain, they suggest that everyone in that crowd should equally be considered a perpetrator simply because he or she is black, even though there was only one shooter, maybe two, who took aim at hundreds of innocent, dancing, celebratory black citizens festively enjoying a sunny Mother’s Day afternoon.
When white people designate this as a “problem in the black community,” the glaring implication is that violence is a problem endemic to the black community, that it is inherent and that it is both impossible to solve and not “our” problem anyway. That is the assumption motivating all the horrendous comments that make blackness the explicit or implicit source of violence instead of laying the blame on one cruel person. And it is that same assumption that silences and repackages our mourning over the violence that occurred in New Orleans this weekend.
Instead, what is endemic, and certainly feels intractable, are the systemic inequalities that persist in New Orleans and in the U.S. overall, injustice for which we are all responsible. Research coming out of the Orleans Parish Place Matters project indicates that life expectancies can differ by 25 years in New Orleans, depending on ZIP code, an indicator of the racial breakdown of a population. Place Matter’s work shows that “social, economic, and environmental conditions in low-income and non-white neighborhoods make it more difficult for people in these neighborhoods to live healthy lives.”
Furthermore, the study proves what should be clear to everyone: Neighborhoods that lack good schools and worthwhile opportunities are correlated with higher rates of violence. When we know this, we cannot hold individuals solely responsible for violence; we must respond urgently to the inequality in our educational institutions, employment opportunities and health care.
And maybe it is easier for many white and middle-class people to turn a blind eye to violence that happens in black communities because they think it cannot happen to them or to anyone they know. How does an entire race become anonymous to the point of seeming alien? How do white Americans live in this country and pretend that they do not know and are not responsible for their neighbors simply because of race?
Second-Line Community Building
I dance and talk and sing and debate with people of all races and classes and professions on Sunday afternoons. We are friends, neighbors and dancing partners, despite all the differences that may divide us. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could live in New Orleans and not have relationships across what might seem to be impossible boundaries in some other towns. And it is hard for me to imagine living anywhere else anymore.
Knowing and loving people who are different from us, embracing their talents, joys and jokes, as well as recognizing and responding to their hardships and suffering is what makes us able to fight for and get passionate about justice in this world. Sometimes I get angry when I hear that someone is concerned about breast cancer only after a family member suffers from it or follows news from Ireland because he or she has some imaginary ancestral connection to the place. Why are the people who look like you more valuable than the people who don’t? Why do we bother to learn about the suffering of our own community when we completely fail to respond to the suffering in others?
The story of violence and injustice in the black community is not my story to tell. There are many people who know it better than I do and have the most effective strategies (though often not the resources) for responding to it. But it should not be the sole responsibility of the African-American community to inform white Americans of the discrimination and inequality that determine the very life outcomes of the citizens of this nation and world.