We heard that Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for climbing into his own home after accidentally locking himself out. Chris Rock started posting selfies when being pulled over by the police. And just a couple of weeks ago, we watched video of James Blake being tackled by a plain-clothed police officer in a case of mistaken identity.
When a famous black person is mistreated, news outlets cover the story in great detail (which is good), and social media furiously pronounces vindication. “Look! This really does happen,” we shout. I believe we are right to share and explain these stories. And yet, I suspect the reason the media loves them so much is because the victim is clearly innocent. When the victim is a “respectable” celebrity, the black and white of the situation is too sexy not to cover. While these moments are helpful to those who connect these moments to larger societal implications, I do grow concerned. I am concerned because I fear the media is only reinforcing the idea that outrage over the treatment of black bodies can only be justified if the victim is both celebrity and angelic. It’s a slow jump from “obviously this upstanding celebrity didn’t deserve this brutality” to “but maybe this poor black man did deserve it.”
When black children are small, most of America loves them. Poor black children are plastered on our TV screens, computer monitors and refrigerator magnets in our homes. Black children are considered quite adorable. I see people enjoying social media videos of black children dancing and singing and rapping and laughing and praying and preaching and being their beautiful selves. Until they turn 8 or 9 or 10. As our children begin to approach double digits, adoration turns to fear. As the baby fat disappears, there is a presumption that black bodies are inherently violent, dangerous, deceptive, thieving criminals to be feared.
And this presumption is killing us. And this presumption never requires accountability from the shooter. And this presumption can’t wait to kill the character of the victim. And this presumption has all of us trying to convince others of the humanity of the victim.
This weekend, we found this truth once again at play when two independent reviews determined the killing of Tamir Rice justified. And we are not surprised. Because despite the lack of information, reports of mental instability of the officer, the false judgements and the rash decisions involved — none of that was considered. You see, the question in these cases is never, “Should the officer have used deadly force?” The question is always, “Could the officer be justified in using deadly force?” The answer to this latter question is always yes when it involves black bodies. Our broken bodies are always justifiable — the only clause is for rich, respectable celebrities. And we can’t afford that.
We must fight for the dignity of every human being — every boy with a hoodie, every girl in a bikini, every dude on the block and every black person in a “nice” neighborhood. Rich tennis star or uneducated teenager, dignity is to be preserved. Dignity is to be preserved.
Sadly we Christians have a tendency to be the worst at this. We are not very good at defending the inherent dignity of others. Our judgement of the victim’s moral character is given far more weight than their possession of the Imago Dei. And that is unacceptable on our part. We Christians share a religion that believes in a holy God who could strike us down for every wrong thing we’ve ever done or will do — but resists, instead offering grace, mercy, love and yes… life.
I am here for sharing the stories of mistreated celebrities. Their human dignity should be preserved, and when violated, someone should be held accountable. But we cannot let the media or those in our circles fall into the trap of only vindicating celebrities because their lives are so public. We must also fight for those who lead invisible lives. Every black body deserves to be treated humanely.
My continued condolences to the family of Tamir Rice.
Austin Channing Brown is a Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison for Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.) by day and a writer by night. She is passionate about the work of racial justice and reconciliation, especially as modeled and led by women. This first appeared on her blog, austinchanning.com.
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