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The Enduring Matter of Black Lives


Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Ezell Ford. Tavin Price.

These are but a very few names of young black men who've recently died by shooting, two from the Midwest -- Missouri and Ohio -- and two from L.A. The victims are connected only by the common circumstances of their death. But read together, their names have a certain rhythmic symmetry, alliteration, even a poetry that is at once eloquent and ominous and that doesn't feel accidental at all. It shouldn't be the case, but the fact is that these men and so many others like them are indeed connected by the fact that they were black, young, and therefore much more likely to die violently than people in other demographics. Despite the fact that we are rousing -- or re-rousing -- ourselves to the idea that "Black Lives Matter," the death of a young black man is still commonplace enough to feel normal. Tragic, yes, but normal. One of them dies; we grieve briefly, maybe the neighborhood memorializes the place where the shooting happened with teddy bears and candles, and then the hole in our consciousness closes back up and we move on, like a bad weather front.

The hole was ripped open for me and many others in the Inglewood/South Central area on Tuesday, when Tavin Price was shot and killed near Florence and 11th Avenues. He was 19, small in stature, described as "special needs" and poised that day to celebrate his 20th birthday. A gang member with a gun approached him about his red shoelaces and shirt. Tavin said he wasn't in a gang, and hurried to his mother, who was at a nearby at a car wash. The suspect followed and shot him in the back and chest. He was hospitalized but later died. The whole thing was horrible on its face, but a couple of things about it cuts to the emotional bone -- the fact that a wounded and clearly frightened Tavin begged his mother not to let him die, the fact that this particular young black man was the very antithesis of the tough, hulking, criminal-in-the-making stereotype foisted on Brown, Rice, and so many others. As well as the fact that this fatal shooting in a big city was not committed by the police, but by another young black man.

We call it black-on-black crime. It's not new; it's been around for as long as there have been ghettoes, poverty, underemployment, and undereducation, all of which disproportionately plague black communities. But more and more I hear people holding up the tragedy of "black on black crime" as a kind of counterargument to the tragedy of fatal police shootings of black men. The implication is that blacks killing each other is at least morally reprehensible, probably more so, than the cops killing them. If blacks can't value each other's lives, the reasoning goes, how can we expect it of anybody else?

But this kind of counterargument is a false divide of the tragedy of black male death that's really all of a piece. Gang members are boys without a sense of place or social worth, and many of them are determined to make their lives matter via a certain notoriety. Gang members shape how all black boys are seen, which accounts for the profiling of young black men not just by police, but by all of us. The racial devaluation runs across the board, inside the black community and out, and its consequences are uniformly tragic. Tavin Price is the victim, of course, and his friends and family are right to be saddened and outraged. They are right to be calling for justice. But his shooter who remains at large is in many ways a dead man as well, and probably has been for a while. It's a tragedy times two.

The shooter will get no teddy bears or candles; if he's lucky, he'll be arrested, go to court and then to prison. But the minimizing of black life that repeatedly manifests not just in tragic actions like shootings -- by cops, or by the misdirected among us -- but in inaction, and indifference, will go on.

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