I read a tragic story on social media on Thursday night. A promising young man named Trey Davis had left the hood in Chicago to get away from its violence. He was a college boy, and, last week he came home to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He was sitting on his porch when he and a friend from high school were hit by stray bullets. He’s dead now, and his buddy’s in the hospital.
And, as I say, this is a straight up tragedy – it could be a Greek play. A young visionary escapes, but is laid low by his love of his family. He was succeeding, maybe against the odds. He was the guy who got out, killed by what he was escaping when he came home to honor his mom. It is absolutely horrible. The ending of a beautiful life, filled with potential. And he should be mourned. His death is a terrible thing.
So I was feeling sad about this young stranger, and thinking about the person or people who shot him. And then I thought that, if one of them dies, I won’t hear about it. It’ll be on the police blotter, because there’s someone there every day. But it won’t find its way onto my social media feeds, or the front page of any papers.
Of course, being the glutton for sorrow our voyeuristic modern era has made me, I brought up the Chicago paper on my laptop, and read about Trey and thought about my son, and the sons of my friends, and then I dug deeper. Way deeper. And in the recesses, on the police blotter, I read about an unnamed “documented gang member” in Fernwood who was shot and killed the same day. And, you know what? That death is terrible too. That victim had the same potential as Trey when he made his first appearance on this crazy earth. He glowed with the same possibilities when he strolled into kindergarten, scared and excited and hoping he’d make new friends. I promise you he was cute, because every kindergartener is. I’ll bet a whole show’s fee that if we had his kindergarten picture, and Trey’s, we’d be hard pressed to tell them apart without pictures of them as adults. But “documented gang member” just didn’t make it as far. For a giant collision of reasons we can guess at but never know, he walked a different path.
And I’m struggling because, even among our various racial and class driven demographic subsets, we’ve categorized the importance of lives. Trey Dennis’s life is considered more valuable than the unnamed but documented gang member. We don’t want to say it out loud, but we, as a culture, think it. That’s why one of them is on the front page and all of our social media feeds, and the other one goes unremarked outside of his neighborhood.
As a culture, we’ve created a priority list of lives, from most to least important. Just typing these words feels morally repugnant.
One aspect of this that we’ve been discussing a lot, here in America, is the fact that the life of a police officer is valued more highly than the life of any African American. (If you don’t understand this as a fact, I’m not sure I can help you. But it is a simple fact. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be seeing the endless forgiveness of the police officers who have ended the lives of African Americans.) Our media, both professional and social, are a part of this movement – they work to show us that each and every dead black American in these settings belonged lower on that priority list. They dig up a criminal record, pull up that gangster Facebook pose, get someone to tell us that he smoked pot or she cursed her grandma out one time. We, as a culture, labor to establish the variation in the value between the victim and the officer. Once we do that, as a society, we feel somehow relieved. Because we can believe that a life of lesser value was traded to protect one of greater value.
It’s the same globally. Everyone was weeping yesterday morning over the photo of a shell-shocked baby boy from Aleppo. People have been dying in Aleppo for two years, and the US Congress is doing its level best to keep those refugees over there, so they don’t become “trouble” over here. Better that 50,000 die in Aleppo than that our FBI has to watch one in Wisconsin, according to our congress. But, a single child? A single symbol of stoic potential? That kid is of high enough value to make us rethink our policies. Because we value his cute little life over the life of his mother, his father, his uncle… We can see his potential, and we feel sorrow. But we cannot, somehow, see the potential in the adults around him. In teenagers and adults around us. Our embrace of this hierarchical list of human value frees us to accept this horribly broken notion.
And to be clear – this is not an argument against the Black Lives Matter movement – it is the very basis for our need of it. Black lives have been placed lower on the priority list, and BLM is struggling to help us understand that the practice is morally corrupt.
Many people talk about compassion fatigue, citing it as an excuse, suggesting that it’s not possible to care about everyone. The problem isn’t that we’re worn out from caring, the problem is that we’ve been this way all along. It’s how we accepted slavery, it’s why rape victims get slut-shamed, it’s why we embrace the constant division of Us from Them.
And until we truly believe in the equal value of every life, until we understand that the ones who join gangs or drop out of school, the homeless and the helpless, the fighters and the losers are of absolutely equal value to the rising stars, the beautiful athletes, the firefighters and the police, the geniuses and the passionate, then we are never going to care for our single parents, repair our broken-down social programs, reform our criminals, fix our education system, or stop the deaths of equally valuable black men and women at the hands of frightened police.