That some lives matter more than others is made clear when the well-documented shortfall in African-American life expectancy is translated into millions of premature deaths. It has been estimated by healthcare researchers that 4.3-4.5 million African-Americans prematurely lost their lives between 1940-1999, and based on life expectancy and US census data, it is estimated that millions more American blacks, in just the population in existence at the turn of this century, will also prematurely die. The cause of this loss of life is multifactorial, seen across all stages of life and is intimately tied to the effects of racial discrimination. The grossly disproportionate level of gunfire homicides in the African-American community is but one symptom of the broad effects of racial discrimination (social and economic), and the most popular gun violence prevention initiatives do not address the discriminatory component. With our current knowledge of factors that negatively impact longevity, the question is raised whether the massive loss of African-American life, tied to discriminatory behaviors and policy in our country, crosses the threshold of becoming a crime against humanity, a crime where both our government and the gun lobby should be held accountable.
Do Some Lives Matter More Than Others?
That question was considered in a recent George Yancy interview with Judith Butler posted in the NY Times Opinion Pages (“What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?”). Excerpting from the piece: “Posters reading ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘I Can’t Breathe’, ‘Hands Up. Don’t Shoot’ communicate the reality of a specific kind of racial vulnerability that black people experience on a daily basis.” The interview, in part, draws on examples of black individuals, such as Rodney King and Eric Garner, who police continued to view as a threat even when completely subdued – many like Garner losing their lives (an issue of conditioning about which this author has written – see paragraphs 23 and 24). As openly stated by a member of the UN’s Committee to End Racial Discrimination (CERD) to the large US government delegation in Geneva, Switzerland this past summer during a review of US obligations under the ICERD treaty (which this writer attended and participated as primary author of a report on African-American Gun Violence Victimization – see acknowledgement at end of article), the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (Sybrina Fulton and Ron Davis, respectively, both of whom gave statements to the committee) lost their teenage sons simply because of the color of their skin. Citing further from Yancy’s Butler interview: “But those whose lives are not considered to matter, whose lives are perceived as a threat to the life that embodies white privilege can be destroyed in the name of that life. That can only happen when a recurrent and institutionalized form of racism has become a way of seeing, entering into the presentation of visual evidence to justify hateful and unjustified and heartbreaking murder.”
However, the loss of life from embedded racism in our country runs far deeper than just that from violent acts. In a recent article this author used data from a UCLA study that showed a shortfall in life expectancy of 7 and 5 years for African-American males and females, respectively, versus their white American counterparts (analysis of nearly 18 million death certificates across all 50 states and Washington D.C. 1997-2004). The average shortfall of 6 years between these gender populations was applied to a population of 35 million African-Americans, (US census data 2000, table 1, page 3 – the closest time point to data collection). The result was an estimated shortfall of over 200 million years. When that figure was divided by a life expectancy of 77.6 years for whites (an estimate of what blacks should live), the result yielded nearly 3 million full life expectancies. However, as individuals would be dying at some fraction of full life expectancy, the premature loss of African-American lives would be anticipated to considerably higher – that being in just the 35 million African-Americans in existence at the turn of this century. Subsequent to that posting, this author uncovered the work of Levine, et. al., who estimated that American blacks experienced 4.3 to 4.5 million premature deaths relative to whites between 1940-1999 (a 59 year span). What becomes clear is that the impact of the well-documented shortfall in African-American life expectancy is trivialized when expressed as a few years difference between blacks and whites – the real impact is realized when the shortfall is translated into millions of premature deaths.
The cause of this premature loss of life is multifactorial and seen across all stages of life. Citing a few examples, a recent CDC study showed that black infants in the US are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than white babies, and premature black infants are three times more likely to die during their first year than premature white babies – the South accounting for the majority of states with the highest rates of infant death. African-American children and teens accounted for 45% of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 yet represented only 15% of the total child population (Children Defense Fund report “Protect Children, Not Guns” 2012). And there is evidence (ref, ref) that just the stress of living in a race conscious society leads to premature aging in American blacks as well as increased susceptibility to chronic health conditions that take their toll later in life such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – these conditions being consistent with those reported to disproportionately affect African-American life expectancy by the CDC (see figure 3, page 3) – and, as identified in that same CDC report, homicide is the second greatest contributor to the shortfall in African-American male life expectancy vs their white counterparts (see figure 4, page 4).
Based on such a massive loss of life, intimately linked to the effects to racial discrimination, this author has held that our country, the purported ‘leader of the free world’, is in the midst of a prolonged, and largely invisible, human rights atrocity of unspeakable proportions – one where institutionalized racism has already claimed many millions of lives, the vast majority being silent deaths (e.g., infant mortality and chronic health issues) as opposed to mass shooting events that draw media attention and public outrage. And although there is some evidence that the life expectancy gap is closing between white and black America on the national level, the effect is uneven across states with, as examples, New York making strong progress but Texas (having a relatively large black population) keeping the national gap from closing further – the difference in life expectancies held to be indicative of deeper social inequities. No doubt the effects of racism will still continue to silently claim millions of more African-American lives. This is intentional, a blind eye is turned towards it, and it is fostered through this country’s politics (as detailed below). Based on opinion issued to this author from a legal scholar in the field of human rights, such a loss of life places our country in violation of at least three international human rights treaties the US Senate has ratified (ICCPR, CAT, and ICERD). Further, racism continues to play no small part in today’s politics (consider the “Southern Strategy”, the effects of which are still in play today as evidenced by political party voting demographics).
Regarding the grossly disproportionate effect of gun violence in the African-American community, it becomes clear that it is not a ‘stand-alone’ issue, but simply one manifestation of embedded racism in America. As was detailed in the report filed with the UN’s CERD, African-Americans account for at least half of the homicide victims in this country (the vast majority involving firearms) while representing only 13-14% of the US population – see paragraph 20. This disproportionate loss of life to violence is driven by the effects of racial discrimination, both directly (overt acts as well as implicit bias, e.g., shooter bias, derived from conditioning that also plays out in our criminal justice system – see paragraphs 22-24) and indirectly (creating the economic and social conditions that foster violence, where African-Americans become both victim and perpetrator of violent crime, thus establishing a positive feedback loop that reenforces and perpetuates the perception of threat – see paragraphs 25-27).
The issue of gun violence in black America thus separates itself from that in white America in that it is compounded by a discriminatory component. And with the African-American population accounting for at least half of the homicide victims in this country (and Hispanics also being twice as likely to lose their lives to homicide than whites in the US) it becomes clear that solutions to gun violence are incomplete without recognizing and addressing that discriminatory component. That is, of course, unless one still wishes to embrace discredited race biology that, from the mid-1700’s well into the 20th century, created the bogus concept of ‘race’ and false claims of fundamental differences between populations (intelligence as but one example) that were used to justify slavery, Jim Crow, and eugenics.
The UN’s CERD last summer held that rampant gun violence in the US, especially its disproportionate effects in racial/ethnic minorities (“particularly African-Americans”), constituted a failure of our government’s duty to effectively protect the right to life (the committee’s recommendations, which our government is obligated to issue response, essentially lifted from the filed report – see paragraph 16). And, despite comments issued by some in the gun violence prevention movement to this work, this is not just a UN matter or one of international law, but is very much a US concern – nothing short of an embarrassment that a UN human rights committee had to point it out. The ‘unalienable’ (can not be taken away or denied) right to life is embedded in our Declaration of Independence; we fought a war of independence to secure that right yet have difficulty in extending that fundamental right to discriminated classes (including women as well – see paragraph 10 ICCPR concluding observations), even to the point of making a mockery of our Constitution by using an element of its Bill of Rights (Second Amendment) to justify this nation’s violation of a fundamental and foundational right.
Gun Violence Prevention Initiatives
To be clear, this author supports the prohibition of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals such as those with a history of violent behavior, domestic abusers and stalkers (expanding background checks to all firearm transfers as was recommended in the filed report and adopted by the CERD in its recommendations) and recognizes that such prohibitions hold some level of benefit across all racial/ethnic populations. In fact, the validity of such prohibitions was recognized by the US Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that struck down a law prohibiting the possession of handguns in the home – excerpting from Scalia who wrote for the majority:
“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose….For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues….nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
And in McDonald v Chicago, that extended Heller to all states through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause in a 5-4 split court decision, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, reiterated the assurances made by Justice Scalia in Heller (legal summary of both cases provided here):
“It is important to keep in mind that Heller, while striking down a law that prohibited the possession of handguns in the home, recognized that the right to keep and bear arms ‘is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose’. . . .We made it clear in Heller that our holding did not cast doubt on such longstanding regulatory measures as ‘prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill’, ‘laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms’. . . . We repeat those assurances here. Despite municipal respondents’ doomsday proclamations, incorporation does not imperil every law regulating firearms (ibid, pp. 39-40).”
But background check loopholes and guns in of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers, do not explain the full 3-fold difference in African-American firearm homicides relative to their representation in the U.S. population. In examining but a sampling of high profile gun homicides, both George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn were in legal possession of their weapons when they took the lives of two unarmed African-American teenage males, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, respectively. To the point of Yancy’s Butler interview about the criminal justice system incorporating and reenforcing bias, Zimmerman was acquitted of a murder charge and a jury initially failed to convict Dunn who was subsequently found guilty in a retrial. Nor, for example, did background checks keep a gun out of the hands of Wade Michael Page, the perpetrator of the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting, (he legally purchased the weapon used in the shooting at a gun shop in West Allis, Wisconsin shortly before the crime), who had ties to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups and who had reportedly talked to a friend about an impending racial holy war.
As long as racism and hateful beliefs exist (and they undeniably do), such prohibitions represent an incomplete and inadequate solution to the gun violence that plagues black America. Such preventative measures more completely address the concerns of white America (that does not suffer a discriminatory component), but do not address the underlying causes that drive the grossly disproportionate gunfire homicide rate in the African-Amercian population. And as has been opined before, it is inadequate, if not immoral, to attempt to reduce gun violence in our minority populations by simply withholding access to guns without also addressing the underlying cause of the violence – a ‘bandaid’ approach.
The following pictures come from two major gun violence prevention events in 2014, both recognizing victims of gun violence; the Jim Brady Memorial in Washington, DC (Fall 2014 – an invitation-only event) and the Trayvon Martin Remembrance event in Miami, FL (Spring 2014 – a march and a fundraising dinner). The difference in the demography of the attendees is striking. Beyond honoring his life, a theme of the Brady Memorial was to complete the work initiated by Jim Brady (White House Press Secretary who was seriously wounded by gunfire in an attempted assassination of President Reagan) and his wife, Sarah, by closing the background check loopholes. Granted that the press corps in Jim Brady’s day, those who knew and spoke of him, was overwhelmingly white, but with black Americans accounting for nearly half of this country’s gun homicide victims, diversity at the event (attended by this author) was sparse at best and pictures of the event posted on the organization’s Facebook failed to capture a single African-American at the event. In contrast, the Trayvon Martin Memorial, based on a tragedy decried by gun violence prevention and civil rights groups across the country, was overwhelmingly attended by the African-American community, including dignitaries such as Jammie Foxx and the Reverend Al Sharpton (pictures 2 and 4 below derived from fundraising materials and internet searches of the event). What resonated with the African-American community was the lower value placed on the lives of African-Americans who fall victim to violence that is justified and reenforced in our criminal justice system.
Picture 1 (Brady Memorial – stage shot)
Picture 2 (Trayvon Martin Remembrance – stage shot)
Picture 3 (Brady Memorial – crowd shot including VP Biden as dignitary)
Picture 4 (Trayvon Martin Remembrance – crowd shot including the Reverend Al Sharpton as dignitary)
Racism, the Political Right and the Gun Lobby
There should be no doubt that the issue of gun violence prevention in America is a highly partisan matter with opposition strongly entrenched on the political right. This was abundantly clear when watered-down background check legislation (Manchin-Toomey), that was supported by 90% of America (across virtually every demographic examined) was successfully filibustered by the Republican Party in 2013, that following the horrific massacre of 20 children and several educators at Sandy Hook Elementary. The measure failed with 54 yea and 46 nay votes. All but 4 Republicans opposed the measure (Collins – ME, a moderate; McCain – AZ; Kirk – IL, a ‘Blue Wall’ state; and Toomey – PA, co-sponsor of the legislation). Five Democrats opposed the legislation: Baucus – MT, Begich – AK, Heltkamp – ND and Pryor – AR all coming from ‘Red Fortress’ states, and Harry Reid – NV (then Senate majority leader) who intentionally voted against the bill to preserve his ability to bring the measure up again.
Regarding the impact of race in our politics, Bob Herbert, in his 2005 NY Times Op-Ed ‘Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant’, cites that the Republican Party “happily replaced the Democratic Party [following forced federal desegregation and enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s] as a safe haven for bigotry, racially divisive tactics and strategies and outright anti-black policies.” Mr. Herbert cites a 1981 interview given by Lee Atwater to Alexander Lamis (a political scientist at Case Western University) where Mr. Atwater explained the evolution of the G.O.P.’s Southern Strategy (excerpted in italics following this paragraph) – the previous link contains the entire interview. Mr. Atwater was no lightweight political operative as evidenced by his positions and accomplishments that were recounted following his death at age 40: ‘Lee Atwater, Master of Tactics for Bush [GHW] and G.O.P…‘. He managed GHW Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign (for which he was awarded chairmanship of the RNC) and at age 29 helped Ronald Reagan win the 1980 Republican Presidential nomination. His tactics included the use racial and ethnic messages. Regarding Mr. Atwater’s successful political use of the Southern Strategy in a majority white voting population, just one in every 20 Republican voters were non-white in 1980 and 1988 (a disparity that continues today with only one in ten being non-white in 2012).
“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
“And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me–because obviously sitting around and saying, ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract that ‘Nigger, nigger’.”
And it’s not just Mr. Atwater’s words. In 2005, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman issued an apology to the NAACP for his party’s exploitation of racial conflict for votes, including such issues as desegregation and busing. Yet, despite that apology, the coded language continues as evidenced by former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s comments made just last year: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
His comment drew immediate and sharp criticism from Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA): “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city’, when he says ‘culture’, these are simply code worlds for what he really means: ‘black’.” A sentiment also echoed by one of Mr. Ryan’s constituents as well.
Regarding the gun lobby, per OpenSecrets.org, 95% of total NRA political contributions went to the Republican Party in the 2014 election cycle, the politically powerful organization being heavily funded by the firearms industry. And just as the Republican party has played on race for political gain, so has the NRA to the benefit of its corporate sponsors. Despite the well-known disproportionate effect of gunfire homicides in the African-American community, consider that just last year Ted Nugent, a highly visible NRA board member, openly referred to our African-American president as a ‘sub-human mongrel’, the historic significance of that disparaging term being recounted by Charles M. Blow in a NY Times Op-Ed. Although NRA leaders worked to insulate themselves and the organization from his slur, Mr. Nugent retained his position on the NRA’s board. Notable Republican politicians, including Senator John McCain, were also quick to denounce Nugent. Yet, despite Mr. Nugent having a long history of issuing racially insensitive remarks dating back into the 1990’s (Violence Policy Center report – see section on Racism and Sexism), politicians have had no difficulty lining their pockets with political contributions (Senator McCain having been cited as the recipient of the most lavish NRA donations).
And, such comments are not unique to Mr. Nugent. Consider the language of Jeff Cooper (deceased, former NRA board member):
“the consensus is that no more than five to ten people in a hundred who die by gunfire in Los Angeles are any loss to society. These people fight small wars amongst themselves. It would seem a valid social service to keep them well-supplied with ammunition.”
And the gun lobby has been successful in creating impediments to federal law enforcement, such as through the Tiahrt Amendments that continue to create roadblocks for civil cases against firearm dealers who work in concert with gun traffickers (this author called for the repeal of the Tiahrt Amendments in the report issued to the UN’s CERD, a position adopted by the committee in its recommendations to our government). Regarding the attempt at addressing gun violence in 2013, the US Senate voted 58-42 in support of a bill addressing gun trafficking (pertinent to the issue of black urban violence) but failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to break the Republican filibuster (all but three Republicans opposed the bill). This law works to protect those who who would prey upon, and profit from, the effects of racial discrimination – the gun lobby effectively protecting that market. Now consider this in light of Mr. Cooper’s sentiments (above) that supplying troubled urban areas with ammunition would provide a valuable social service.
There is a hand-in-glove fit between the political right and the gun lobby on racial conflict, both exploiting it for gain – one political, the other profit. It becomes clear that compassionate pleas regarding the plight of our African-American citizens will have little effect on this alliance. Solutions will require going beyond typical ‘cookie cutter’ political approaches such as TV ads, petition signing and lobbying efforts. The need for effective, hardball, strategy becomes an imperative.
A Crime Against Humanity?
A valid question becomes how what is happening to the African-American community does not cross the threshold of being declared a crime against humanity – this is being explored with human rights attorneys. Such crimes, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Court Explanatory Memorandum, ” ‘are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or degradation of human beings.’ They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a defacto authority.” Included amongst such offenses is racial persecution. These “reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.”
As detailed above, the multiple causes of millions of premature deaths in our African-American community are not tied to isolated or sporadic events, but rather to widespread and systematic discriminatory practices over a period of many, many years that have been fostered by legislative actions at both federal and state levels.
This author contends, based on our modern understanding of factors that negatively impact longevity, that it is not necessary to take lives in brutal acts in order to facilitate a mass killing event in a discriminated population. As has been written before, a staggering loss of life has been attributed to income/wealth inequality, low education, racial segregation, lack of access to healthcare, as well as from compounding social stress through disenfranchisement (e.g., voter suppression)- all of which disproportionately affect the African-American community and all of which are fostered legislatively by government. What’s occurring in our African-American population becomes something far more serious than civil rights infractions when it is placed into the context of millions of premature deaths. Thus, disproportionate gun violence victimization in African-Americans becomes just one component of a broader, systematic atrocity. And why should not the NRA, through both its actions as well as language issued by multiple of its leaders of the course of many years, also be held accountable as a contributor to this atrocity?
In a previous article this author questioned the wisdom of the gun violence prevention movement taking head-on an issue that typically registers low on the list of reasons held to be important in voting for Congress. This current article lays the groundwork for another currently in production that provides further evidence supporting a political solution to both gun violence and racial discrimination. A tremendous synergy exists between the gun violence prevention and human rights movements that has yet to be realized, one where minority populations now have the votes needed by the gun violence prevention movement to change Congress and where the gun violence prevention movement holds the financial means to augment that vote. This synergy would create a more progressive Congress that not only would better address the thousands of lives taken by gun violence across all of society, but the millions that are being lost to racial/ethnic discriminatory behaviors as well.
Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, gave testimony as part of a panel before the Congressional Black Caucus on race and justice in America following the Trayvon Martin matter. Included on the panel were Maya Wiley (President and founder, Center for Social Inclusion) and Eugene Robinson (Washington Post). In closing, participants were asked what could be done. Mr. Dees response (at the 1:39.30 point of the video) was that the solution would be found with the election of a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic President. Considering what has been detailed above, it becomes difficult to argue against his point.
Acknowledgement: The invaluable review and editorial input of both the Violence Policy Center (Washington, DC) and Amnesty International USA (NY, NY), both of which agreed to join the report filed to the UN’s CERD, is acknowledged and most appreciated.