As a father of two daughters, my heart stopped as I surfed to the Washington Post’s website and saw the vibrant photograph of Annie Le, murdered the other day in New Haven. When a lovely Yale graduate student is killed only days before her wedding, and the body is found hidden within a wall inside a secure campus lab, attention will be paid. It certainly should.
Yet as always, there is something unsettling about the selective attention our nation pays when such tragedies strike. This is not a new thought, but a high-profile homicide provides a sadly important reminder.
In many American cities, educated and affluent people—more generally those of us who are not African-American or Hispanic—live in surprising safety. We are actually safer than most of us realize. Chicago, hardly America’s safest city, has a homicide rate among non-Hispanic whites of about 3/100,000. By comparison, London’s homicide rate is about 2.4/100,000. When someone so young and privileged is struck down, the very rarity of the tragedy draws us and the media to pay attention.
Meanwhile, a short bicycle ride from my office, residents of predominantly minority communities die with appalling frequency from gun violence. The very frequency of these tragedies encourages the opposite emotional and media effect. Across America, the 2006 homicide rate among African-American women of childbearing age was 9.9/100,000. The comparable rate among Asian-American women was 1.6/100,000. (The homicide rate among same-age African-American men exceeds 70 per 100,000; this is an even older story.)
I cannot imagine the agony of Annie Le’s family and friends today. Her life deserves celebration. Her survivors need our comfort and help. As we do so, we should remember that somewhere else in America tonight, or tomorrow night, or the next night, another young woman will be the victim of an atrocity. Maybe she will be killed by a jealous boyfriend, in a supposedly routine convenience store robbery, or by a teenager firing wildly across gang boundaries. Maybe she will be reported missing, as Pamela Butler was in Washington, DC.
The families of these women—as Annie Le’s would surely be the first to note—require that same comfort and help. We all get the same word count in God’s book, whether our deaths receive one paragraph on page B12 or receive front-page play in a national newspaper.
is a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies.