This is what White America thinks:
Black Americans deserve to be shot by police officers. Black Americans deserve this because
- Black Americans are dumb: whether because of genetics or because of a long history of social problems, or both; black Americans do things regular Americans never do, like getting angry with police when the police rightfully stop them or ask them questions, or like reaching into their pockets when they’re being interrogated. I mean, who does that? If a cop has a gun on you, don’t reach for something!
- Black Americans should know better: black Americans watch the same news I do and yet they keep getting themselves into these positions and making stupid decisions. I mean, why can’t they avoid these situations all together?
- Black Americans are rightly suspected by the police more than other Americans as they have a long history of causing trouble in the United States; think of all the riots that have occurred throughout the years. How many of those were predominantly black?
- Black Americans make everything about race when it doesn’t have to be, so they are creating their own circumstances here. If black Americans didn’t make such a big deal about of race, cops wouldn’t be more alert to black Americans. If black Americans didn’t protest, police wouldn’t have to put on riot gear.
- Black Americans just don’t know how to behave properly: if black Americans had assimilated and became true Americans, this problem wouldn’t exist. It’s because black Americans don’t really know what it’s like to be American that there’s this problem.
- Black Americans are inferior: I mean, don’t we have centuries of history to prove that?
Black Americans deserve what they get. If they’re going to behave this way, they should expect to be shot by police. Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just telling the truth.
When (mostly white, mostly conservative) Americans support the police every time the police shoot someone, and when these Americans condemn black American’s protests against getting repeatedly shot by the police, they are revealing the above feelings. Sure, they may not always explicitly state these sentiments, but these sentiments implicitly underlie every condemnation of a peaceful protest against police violence as “violent.” These sentiments underlie every attempt to explain why the police were justified in shooting yet another person. They underlie every tweet of #AllLivesMatter.
In this day and age, how can people honestly believe that the police – whose job it is to protect citizens, not shoot them – should be allowed to shoot people with near-impunity? How can citizens convince themselves that it is okay for other citizens to be shot by the very people who should be protecting them? There are lots of reasons people believe these things, including systemic racism that has existed in the United States and the Thirteen Colonies since African slaves were first brought to North America. But the answer I want to focus on is something called the Just World Fallacy, the belief that the world is actually a fair place, and how it allows people to condemn victims.
Once upon a time I lived in Hamilton, Ontario. One spring, a woman was out walking in the woods and was shot by accident. Turns out, it was hunting season. The reaction of my colleagues at the insurance company I worked for was not one of empathy for the victim or outrage that someone could have shot another human being; rather it was a firm conclusion that this woman deserved it. This woman deserved to be shot. According to their rules of the world, it was this woman’s responsibility to know it was hunting season, to know she should not go into the woods. She had violated the rules and deserved her fate. If she had to enter the woods, she sure should have been wearing orange. How could she enter the woods without wearing orange? During hunting season? I mean, how dumb can you be? It didn’t seem to be up for debate that it was possible to believe that the hunter who shot her shouldn’t have shot her, that the responsibility for this woman’s death was not the victim’s, but the shooter’s.
In the mid 1960s, a group of psychologists led by Melvin J. Lerner wanted to find out why victim blaming occurs. They turned their attention to poverty in Kentucky – why did university students, studying psychology, blame the poor of Kentucky for being poor? And to that end, they performed a number of studies focused on how human beings view others as they receive rewards and punishments, whether “deserved” or not.
What they found was that the test subjects believed that those getting rewarded deserved the rewards and those getting punishments deserved the punishment, even when those rewards were most arbitrary, and when those punishments were most arbitrary and cruel – especially when the rewards and punishments were arbitrary. Basically, they discovered that the vast majority of us think the world is fair even when we are provided with direct evidence that it is not. Especially when provided with direct evidence that it is not.
We believe the world has an inherent order and set of rules. Suffering – especially the inexplicable, needless suffering of people we don’t know – draws our attention to the fact that the world is, in fact, not fair. How does our mind cope with this? We blame victims. The person experiencing this suffering must have done something wrong – something that violated the order and rules of the universe – that is why they are suffering. They deserve to suffer. This is the just world fallacy: the world is fair so people who suffer, suffer for a reason, and that reason is that they deserve it. (And, consequently, it’s not that I am powerless to stop the suffering, but rather that I would be violating the rules of the world if I tried to stop it.)
A key aspect of this fallacious belief in a just world is that we believe the world is fair towards us. Even though every one of us have been upset about how unfair life seems at one point or other in our lives, we still assume, deep down, that we’re special and that the world has plans for us. And even though we tell ourselves that fairness is universal, it’s really our moral code – however conceived – that all others have to live by. (I mean the moral code we imagine ourselves living by, not one based on our actual behaviour. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.) When others suffer we believe they have violated the universe’s rules that are (somehow) based on our own moral ideas. This is why a racial component makes it even easier to blame the victims. Black people are different than white people (visibly, anyway) and so it’s far easier to see them as foolishly violating the rules than someone who looks like us.
Black Americans are being shot by police. In 2015, American police officers killed at least 102 unarmed black Americans. 1 37% of all unarmed citizens killed by the police were “black” despite black Americans making up 13% of the population. Black Americans were killed by police at a rate of 5 times more than other Americans.
But this is not a problem because each and every black American who has been shot by police has done something to deserve it. That’s why the media spends inordinate amounts of time digging into the previous criminal history of the victim every time a black man is shot or otherwise killed by the police. (Much like how police, prosecutors, judges and juries have long believed a rape victim’s sexual past was somehow a clue to whether or not she somehow incited the rape – or just made it up for shits and giggles.) And this is why (most of) the media don’t spend the same amount of time looking into whether or not the police involved have a history of violence. The victim must have deserved it. The victim had to deserve it. If we acknowledge the victim may not have deserved it, this would raise far more disturbing questions for us.
White America is feeling particularly put upon lately. For decades (a century?) it seemed the world favoured the United States and its internal power structure. Americans thought this was only fair, just as the British did when their empire ruled supreme, and just as the Romans did. Every empire has deserved its position, obviously. But with the myriad of economic problems that have undercut the American dream, and the endless wars that the US has been engaged in, things don’t feel the same any more. It feels as though the US has lost its deserved hegemony. This is why Trump can say “Make America Great Again” and people believe he will, despite everything else he says and does. Many white Americans think that the world has started treating them unfairly – though they believe it treated their parents fairly – and something needs to be done to restore the balance. One of the forces that has caused this upset is the drive for racial equality.
In the Just World that used to exist in the United States, blacks were in their place. However, they have violated the rules: they have protested for greater equality – really, rioted, if we’re being honest – and they have forced schools and employers and businesses – small businesses! the heart of America! – to include them through Affirmative Action and other unconstitutional laws, such as the Civil Rights Act. They have broken the rules. These shootings are what they deserve.
I am not saying the Just World Fallacy is the only explanation for the lack of concern a huge chunk of America has for the regular shootings of black Americans by police, there are lots of causes. It’s a rich tapestry of intolerance. But it’s one of the fundamental causes and it is completely ignored in the discussion. Many white Americans think black Americans deserve to be shot, that is why they are unwilling to do anything about it.
The Just World Fallacy is
- People believing that the victims of police shootings deserve to be shot;
- People believing that those protesting police shootings are inherently violent, should be arrested and beaten, or worse;
- People believing that anyone who is trying to redress structural racism in the United States is devaluing the lives of people who are not “black.”
Every time we tweet #AllLivesMatter we are really saying, “The world is fair. Everyone else is following the rules and getting by. Why can’t black people?” And we couldn’t be more wrong. The world is inherently unfair. Systemic racism exists. The militarization of American police exists. And if we don’t try to curb these things, more people are going to die.
- This does not include armed black Americans (who may have had the right to carry) or the black Americans shot by police who did not die. ↩