Have you heard about what happened to Zachary Hammond? If you believe his attorney, the nation has been asleep about the fact that the 19-year-old was shot and killed by the police while on a date. If you believe his attorney, nobody has said his name or expressed outrage at yet another police killing because he is white.
“It’s sad, but I think the reason is, unfortunately, the media and our government officials have treated the death of an unarmed white teenager differently than they would have if this were a death of an unarmed black teen,” family attorney Eric Bland told the Washington Post. “The hypocrisy that has been shown toward this is really disconcerting.”
He further noted, “The issue should never be what is the color of the victim. The issue should be: Why was an unarmed teen gunned down in a situation where deadly force was not even justified?”
The attorney’s racial fantasy is commonplace. A common retort to protests denouncing yet another police killing of an unarmed black man or woman is, “But what about Troy Goode, Derek Wolfsteller, Dillon Taylor, Gilbert Collar or the countless other white victims who died at the hands of police?”
Because these cases don’t always spark national news coverage, some think that this bias reveals the hypocrisy of a media intent on “playing the race card” and dividing America through misinformation and lies.
The claims that cases like Hammond’s are being ignored, despite widespread mainstream media coverage, are about furthering the narrative of white victimhood: that only #BlackLivesMatter to the media; that politicians have little interest in protecting white lives; that the justice system is ignoring the violence directed at white bodies.
If such claims were not so dangerous, they would be laughable. The Republican Party, Fox News and countless others continue to mobilize around the fallacy that the tides have turned and white America is swimming upstream. Even as the nation focuses on the killing of unarmed black men and women, it becomes a moment to lament how whites are getting the short end of the stick.
White privilege is so pervasive that outrage materializes to denounce the false belief that media is covering black deaths more than white deaths, never mind the history of policing in this country and the totality of these killings.
This narrative of white victimhood is a false equivalence that is central to white supremacy. To claim “What about Zachary?” requires a level of historic myopia. It requires ignoring a history of systemic racial terrorism against black people—the lynchings, the police dogs and the fire hoses.
It’s telling that the folks who support the claim that #AllLivesMatter have remained silent on Hammond. If Eric Bland and others are angry that Hammond isn’t trending, maybe they should look no further than the white leaders and activists who are too busy with lions, Iran and Tom Brady.
If the #AllLivesMatter crowd were to acknowledge police violence against whites, it would call into question all the reactionary arguments that African Americans are to blame for their own deaths. It would undermine the ubiquitous efforts to pathologize and criminalize black victims of police violence in order to explain away each and every case of racial injustice: that they were no angels, that they should not have run, that they should not have been drunk. Racism precludes these arguments from working with Hammond and other white victims.
If white America were to acknowledge police violence against whites, it would put white privilege under a microscope, highlighting the exceptionality of incidents involving whites while shining a glaring spotlight on the disproportionality of police killings of African Americans and Native Americans.
If white America were to look at Hammond alongside Mike Brown, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose and Sandra Bland, it would call into question the very fabric of white supremacy, demanding that we ask who, indeed, threatens our security and our freedom.
Throughout history, the vision of policing has been that America needs a militarized and massive police apparatus to control the criminal black body and to always protect and serve white America. The killing of Hammond undermines the narrative that tells white America that more police puts them out of harm’s way from the thugs, the terrorists and the undocumented immigrants.
False narratives about no one caring about white lives ignore reality. It is essential for white America to see that denying the dangers of police violence is not making any of us safer. Only when we all begin to recognize the truth and see the humanity of every victim of police violence will we be on a path to justice.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.