Viewing life unequally: Every death is a shame

By Stephen Caruso / Columnist

Any death is a shame.

However, this simple truth is seemingly hard to accept, as evidenced by the events of the past few months. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu dominate the news. Media personalities have passed the blame around until it has no meaning, other than political grandstanding.

Liberals argue that institutional racism killed Brown and Garner and inspires the occasional tragedy like the murders of Officers Ramos and Liu in New York City on Dec. 20th. Conservatives push back that the former deaths are exceptions blown out of proportion, leading to the latter, and the media becomes a willing partner to a cycle of argumentation that won’t change any minds. 

These points can be argued ad nauseum, but no one is correct. The focus should be on police reporting and media sensationalism, the real culprits. Use only one of those sources and your conclusion on race and policing in America will be radically different.

Police shootings are not recorded consistently. No law requires the reporting of shootings by law enforcement officials. Instead, shootings are self-reported by individual departments to other databases, such as the FBI or the CDC. Nobody forces police to report shootings. It is entirely on the honor system. Forget body cameras — force every police agency to report back to the FBI every time they shoot someone. Then there would be some meat to these arguments. But, with this incomplete information, political commentators still like to try to draw conclusions.

For example, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, on his Dec. 3, 2014 show, said that “in 2012, 123 African Americans were shot dead by police. There are currently more than 43 million blacks living in the U.S.A. Same year, 326 whites were killed by police bullets. Those are the latest stats available.” However, O’Reilly did not include that blacks comprise a smaller percentage of the population, only 12.1 percent, according to the 2000 census. In comparison, whites cover 69.1 percent. So, there is a higher instance of blacks being shot and killed by police when we consider how much smaller the pool is when compared to the white population.  

O’Reilly is not incorrect, but his statistics are only representative of the CDC’s numbers, which he did not cite during his show.

Just four days earlier, on Nov. 29, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in his article “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5” that “young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.” He came to this conclusion by using ProPublica, a non-profit journalism group, which gathered data from FBI datasets that were incomplete.

Kristof was at least kind enough to cite ProPublica within his story. The way O’Reilly cites sources would make him fail a high school research paper. O’Reilly’s numbers (or at least how he presented them on his show) imply equal chances of a police shooting, whether black or white, while Kristof’s make the odds much greater for a black person. 

However, if in the meantime you still desire  some perspective, my best suggestion would be searching #AliveWhileBlack on Twitter. Tweets with the hashtag give a brief look into the life of black Americans, usually describing the undue attention given to them just for their skin color. These stories won’t have any statistical merit, but at least they won’t be trying to. 

While some white Americans may have black friends and exposure to black lives, the reality is that racial divides are still prevalent, especially in cities like Pittsburgh. According to statistics from Business Insider, Pittsburgh’s black-white dissimilarity score is 63.1. Scores above 60 on this scale are considered very highly segregated.  Black people tend to stick to a few neighborhoods on the East Side, primarily, such as East Liberty. So, geography often separates the black-white demographic. Social media like the #AliveWhileBlack hashtag on Twitter seeks to close this gap where it exists.

Instead of pushing for a real first step, the media has tried to use the gristle to concoct arguments on race and police violence. The deaths have become mere tools for commentators and broadcast executives, rather than the tragedies they are. It’s not that there is not room for analysis, but, in 24-hour media that focus more on analysis than the news itself, the actual human drama of these deaths feels as if it is lost. 

For example,was there any reason to air Ramos’s funeral on live television? It feels more like a ratings ploy than an actual attempt to honor the dead.

More than that, media coverage has shown how unequally America treats death. Two police officers die an early and violent death, and everything stops in their honor. 

But what about Eric Garner? Does anyone deserve to die for a petty crime? An innocent death is an innocent death. Rafeal Ramos equals Eric Garner. The media needs to quit sensationalizing death, playing a game of “which murder is worse?” 

So, we should continue to question and analyze deaths. It is not a solution to walk away from tragic death and act as though it never happened. However, this critical analysis needs to be more realistic, cause more change rather than sensationalize and dramatize. The attention to brutal tragedies should be equally applied across race and status, as well.

Let’s react solemnly not just when one of New York’s finest dies, but when any one of the country’s innocents dies in such a senseless fashion. That is equality.

Stephen Caruso writes on varying topics such as economics and social issues. He is also the Layout Editor for The Pitt News.

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