White Americans are also killed by the police.
Last week the Department of Justice announced it would begin an investigation into the shooting death of South Carolina teen Zachary Hammond. Police claim Hammond used his vehicle as a weapon to flee the scene of an attempted drug bust. But according to the Post and Courier, Hammond was on a date eating ice cream when Lt. Mark Tiller allegedly shot him twice through the open driver’s side window.
There are others. In January, 34-year-old Autumn Steele was shot and killed in Iowa by a police officer who said he was aiming for her German Shepherd. The officer was cleared of criminal charges in the incident, which was captured by the officer’s body camera. In July, 23-year-old Allan White was tased and then shot dead in Tennessee after allegedly attacking an officer. White was unarmed and his mother claimed he was not stalking the police officer.
According to the Guardian’s “The Counted” project, 62 of the 731 who have died at the hands of police in 2015 have been unarmed white Americans, compared to 59 black Americans. The report classifies Hammond as armed because he allegedly used his vehicle as a weapon; the family disagrees.
It’s true that in the last year, these and other deadly encounters between white Americans and police officers haven’t received nearly as much media attention as those of black Americans.
But that isn’t because white lives don’t matter.
The Hammond family’s attorney, Eric Bland, obliquely claimed as much, pitting Hammond’s death against the deaths of the many black Americans who have become household names.
“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,” Bland told The Washington Post. “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?”
While white people make up almost half of victims of police-involved death incidents this year, unarmed African-Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as unarmed white Americans, according to a recent investigation by the Guardian. The Washington Post notes that black men are seven times more likely to be fatally wounded by police gunfire than whites.
The black lives matter movement has successfully raised awareness around the systemic failures of policing in black communities, and of the disproportionate number of black Americans dying in police encounters. These encounters date back hundreds of years. Until well after the civil-rights movement, trumped up charges, false convictions, and state-sponsored sabotage were commonplace for black Americans. The punishment for these “crimes” included lynching, the electric chair, or life in prison.
With the history of black oppression in mind, the movement’s focus, of course, is the preservation of black lives: Black people are killed by police at a higher rate than white people, and it isn’t because black people are more evil. It’s because of institutional racism, which facilitates higher rates of poverty, unemployment and food insecurity, prison sentences, and unequal education.
In his statement, Bland invokes the tension between black lives matter protesters and their detractors, who contend that the movement should be centered around “all lives.” In a previous Fusion article outlining the difference between black lives matter and all lives matter Slate’s Jamelle Bouie said this: “The problem with ‘All Lives Matter’—as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’—is that it doesn’t make sense. As a slogan, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a response to the poor accountability of officers who shoot unarmed black Americans." Bouie adds, “If you were to add the unspoken context to the slogan, it look like this: ‘Governments should rein in police violence against black citizens because Black Lives Matter.’ If police shootings were evenly distributed, ‘All Lives Matter’ might make sense as a response. But because they aren’t—it’s a non-sequitur.”
Loss of life matters, full stop. The black lives matter movement does not exist and has not grown exponentially in the last year in order discount white lives lost in police encounters.
The black lives matter movement is not about white people.
Activists on Twitter have responded to criticisms of scant attention paid to the death of Zachary Hammond by pointing out that black lives matter detractors were nowhere to be found:
The black lives matter movement and white victims of police violence do intersect: encounters with law enforcement in the United States are dangerous. According to a report in the Guardian, the police in the U.S. kill civilians at a disproportionate rate to other first world countries. For example: Iceland, a country of about 323,000, has had one fatal police shooting in 71 years. Stockton, California, a city roughly the same size, has had three in the first five months of this year.
The same Guardian report says that more unarmed black men have been shot and killed by U.S. police in 2015 than Germans of any race, armed or unarmed, between 2010 and 2011.
America has a gun problem. And America has a racism problem. If you’re white you can die in an interaction with police and that matters. If you’re black you’re more likely to die in an interaction with police that also matters. The difference? This country has always valued one life over the other.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.