What do you remember about the time in late May when Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog without a leash, called 911 when Christian Cooper, a Black man at the same park, told her to use a leash?
If you followed any of the immediate news coverage, you probably remember that Christian Cooper is a Harvard graduate who was bird watching at the time. This detail was mentioned over and over again. On one hand, it was used to emphasize that being a well-educated Black person does not mean freedom from anti-Black racism, highlighting that class status is not an antidote to racism.
On the other hand, this was a detail used to paint a peaceful, kind, respectable picture of Christian Cooper. Of course, that begs the question, why is painting that picture necessary to recognize that what Amy Cooper did was wrong? Is it because the default view of Black men is one that demonizes them, requiring these details to then humanize them?
Is it because the default view of Black men is one that demonizes them, requiring these details to then humanize them?
Around June, details about Elijah McClain and his murder at the hands of the police started circulating around social media. The most widespread of these details seem to be his last words and the videos of him playing the violin to abandoned kittens during his lunch hour. In sharing these details, more people are forced to reckon with the idea that McClain is a real human being, not another number of a life lost. He is a boy with hobbies that you might have, and the police murdered him.
Again, the effect of these details needs to be examined. These details assert McClain’s individuality, but once again revealing uncomfortable questions that must be asked. Why do we need these details to humanize him in the first place? And, to put it more directly, what difference does knowing these details make in your outrage? Does his death upset you more because of that video? Would you have ignored it otherwise?
When I looked up the official website for the Black Lives Matter movement, this is the description I saw on the Google result for the homepage: “That’s it. That’s the message. That’s the content. No qualifiers, no eloquent quote. Just a reminder of my devotion to ensuring ALL Black Lives Matter.” This is the issue underlining news coverage and people’s responses to the way that Cooper was threatened and McClain was murdered.
These are qualifiers that spark outrage on the basis that Black lives like these, of innocent men who lived peacefully, matter.
There has been a lot of outcry over how these specific Black lives were, respectively, threatened and murdered. The lives of a birdwatcher who graduated from Harvard and a boy who plays violin to kittens. These are qualifiers that spark outrage on the basis that Black lives like these, of innocent men who lived peacefully, matter. This is disturbing for countless reasons.
It implies that if they were indeed guilty of a crime, they deserved that violence. This perpetuates the idea that the police are a necessary force of violence in society. This is not an abstract possibility, but rather what many actually resorted to in finding past crimes committed by George Floyd to justify his murder by police.
Moreover, such qualifiers of why Cooper and McClain’s lives matter are a gateway to relegating other Black lives to the background. For example, implying that the lives of Black women, especially Black transgender women, do not matter as much or do not need to be fought for with as much dedication. This is why movements such as #SayHerName are so important in calling for justice for women like Breonna Taylor and Oluwatoyin Salau. The is also why the statement that Black Trans Lives Matter is a crucial one to be supported as protesters march to hold the murderers of Black transgender women accountable.
While on the surface, highlighting Cooper’s passion for birdwatching and McClain’s love for animals comes from good intentions, the pattern this coverage establishes is insidious. It suggests that only some Black lives matter, that these select few are more understandable and convenient to care about, somehow more human and deserving of protection. In striving to be better allies, we must be alert to this propaganda and consistently re-examine our own responses to such coverage.
We cannot just dismiss our emotional responses, our selective outrage, as instincts beyond our control. We need to recognize that these responses reveal our culturally-informed biases about what justice ought to look like and whether some people actually deserve to lose their lives in the name of this so-called justice. By acknowledging this, we can make clear action plans to take those responses apart and unlearn them at the root of how we developed them in the first place. If we resist taking that first step, then it becomes difficult to perceive or own complicity in anti-Black racism even as we engage with materials that are meant to help us do better and be better allies.