Far too often when a black man gets killed by a member of white society (even with video footage), people are waiting for ALL the facts. However, when a white person gets murdered by black society the same folks have all the information they need to form a judgment. He is guilty! Many times when there is not enough evidence for that claim, accusers go searching for past records to validate their feelings. Somehow, someway the black man has to be blamed – even partially – for his own murder.
The video of two white men chasing down and killing an unarmed black man named Ahmaud Arbery prompted a widespread outcry among many who saw it as part of a historical pattern of racist violence. However, following the demand for justice, some voices began to defame his character. Questions surfaced on whether the victim was “just a jogger” and wondered whether someone who was out on a jog would be “wearing khaki shorts.” It did not stop there because others decided they should research and bring up his prior criminal history as a justification for his murder. Why do black victims get blamed for their own murder?
Studies have proven that negative portrayal of a shooting victim can lead people to blame the victim for his own death and to sympathize with the shooter, After reading positive information about a shooting victim, participants were more likely to recommend that the shooter be charged with first-degree or second-degree murder. When the victim was described in negative ways, study participants were more likely to view the homicide as justified and to recommend a lighter sentence for the shooter.
The synonymy of the black male with criminality is not a new phenomenon in America. Documented historical accounts have shown how myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence and have culminated in the exponential increase in unarmed black men being killed or incarcerated. Misconceptions and prejudices manufactured and disseminated through various channels such as the media included references to a “brute” image of the black community.
In the 21st century, this negative imagery has frequently utilized the harmful connotation of the terminology “thug.” In recent years, law enforcement agencies have unreasonably used deadly force on black men who were allegedly considered to be “suspects” or “persons of interest.” The exploitation of these often-targeted victims’ criminal records, physical appearances, or misperceived attributes has been used to justify their unlawful deaths. Again, making some wonder why these victims are blamed for their own murder. Despite the connection between disproportionate criminality and black masculinity, little research has been done on how unarmed black men, particularly but not exclusively at the hands of law enforcement, have been posthumously criminalized.
In a controversial 1975 article, titled “White Racism, Black Crime, and American Justice,” criminologist Robert Staples argued that discrimination pervades the justice system. He said the legal system was made by white men to protect white interests and keep blacks down. Staples charged that the system was characterized by second-rate legal help for black defendants, biased jurors, and judges who discriminate in sentencing. He wrote:
In the past hundred years, criminologists have shown great interest in the relationship between race and crime. Various theories have been put forth to explain the association between racial membership and criminal activity. These theories have ranged from Lombroso! discredited assertion that certain groups possess inherent criminal tendencies to the more widely accepted theory that certain racial groups are more commonly exposed to conditions of poverty which lead them to commit crimes more often.
As such, the reaction to Arbery’s murder is almost as unsurprising as the death of yet another unarmed black man. This was the latest of several high-profile killings of young African American men in which the alleged criminal backgrounds of the victims have been used to sway public perception, influence legal proceedings, and even impact national politics. The reflexive instinct to blame the victims in cases like this is rooted in a desire to correlate blackness with criminality — to imply their untimely death was because they did something wrong. The benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence, does not exist for these victims, and under these auspices, justice is not blind; it becomes merely partisan and corrupt.
On February 23, 2020, Arbery was chased and killed by vigilantes. Racism allowed them to claim self-defense. The black community knows, oh too well, that society validates the lives of some while invalidating the lives of others. Every time a black man is shot and killed the often-unwarranted act is followed by attempts to tip the scales of justice to assume their criminality while giving their shooter the benefit of the doubt. Justice is not blind when it clearly picks one side and enables unarmed black men to be tarred with the “thug” label when they get killed with near impunity.
Black boys are seen as a threat to social hierarchy from the minute they are born. Black kids — even preschoolers — are suspended and expelled at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Despite being just as likely to commit a crime as white boys, black boys are more likely to be imprisoned. Victim-blaming is too often used to cover for otherwise incompetent and lazy “policing” and a flawed justice system. The law and pundits’ attempts to smear character essentially say that if the person is not white, they are not right.
What was the crime committed by Arbery as he jogged through a Georgia neighborhood in the broad daylight? Being black in America. That is it. The crime is walking while being black, shopping, driving, speaking, going to the pool, all while being black. As painful as it sounds, simply being black is one of the largest crimes committed in these so-called United States of America. Why? Because black lives have never mattered. Black lives in America are the objects of social suspicion as to their constitutive condition, their very being.
Black lives may not matter to a majority, but they have a real presence in this country. They provided a great deal of labor on which America was founded. Black America is the face of strength and resilience; they have learned to survive in the face of death, humiliation, and oppression. African Americans continue to exemplify dignity in the face of denial and humanity while constantly being humiliated.
However, black lives do matter even as the struggle for justice, rights, and full citizenship appear bleak. While history contends that black lives have never mattered, it has now become necessary to insist, “Black lives matter,” and to proclaim it often and loudly. Yes, all lives matter, except when they do not; as is the case in a world laced with racial biases within a large portion of America, and more importantly, law enforcement.
The violence is not new, instead, it is cell phones with cameras that capture what has long been a part of the black experience. Why is the black victim-blamed for his own murder? Society has conditioned Americans to believe that black men are thugs and criminals whose lives are not important.
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
Duke Today: Negative Portrayals of Shooting Victims Lead to Victim Blaming
Robert Staples: White Racism, Black Crime, and American Justice
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Inline Image by Alex Garland Courtesy of Backbone Campaign’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of Andy Witchger – Wikimedia Creative Commons License