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American violence is a racist cycle

| Friday, August 14, 2020

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever wanted to do? Lots of us have gotten in physical fights, so those people have at least made the decision to hit someone. Have you ever been so angry, sad or frustrated, that the thought crossed your mind of destroying something, or hurting someone? Think of the most emotionally distraught situation you’ve been in, and for good measure, imagine you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you were in that situation (if you weren’t already). What’s the worst decision you could see yourself making?

The chances are, if we’re being honest, we’ve all been in situations where we could make violent, destructive decisions. So when we talk about violence in the public sphere, it surprises me sometimes how unsympathetic we can be. Do we really think that the world is like an FBI procedural television show, where cold-blooded serial killers are around every corner waiting to maliciously attack innocents? Some such corny shows even focus on the rationalization behind violence. ​“Criminal Minds​,” for all of its faults, usually pointed out the traumatic backstories, mental health issues and self-justification of its criminals. Violent action, in real life, is not carried out by comic-book villains, ruthless murderers or demonic terrorists. It’s carried out by real people, like you and me, who believe it is their best option.

I’ve recently been thinking about violence, not as a recurring, deplorable action, but as a cycle. Those who are victims of violence find it easiest to subsequently justify committing violence, whether it be in self-defense, revenge or simple frustrated anger. Violence is self-perpetuating, similar to its shadow, disrespect. Those who are victims are prone to becoming perpetrators, and their victims may do the same, and so on, and so forth. (It’s also important to recognize this isn’t only true on the individual level — how many ethnic conflicts around the world have histories of horrific violence on all sides?) This way of thinking about violence largely came to me from a book called ​“Just Mercy” ​by public interest criminal lawyer Bryan Stevenson. The book describes Stevenson’s experiences with defending inmates on death row in Alabama from the 1980s to the present. It’s a profound, disturbing account of the way deadly violence carries itself out through human actions. It also taught me about the way in which our national conversations about violence are shaped by our ideas about race.

Race systemically affects the portions of violence’s cycle which we, as a society, deem appropriate, or at least sympathetic. We defend violent police officers, the war on drugs and overseas aggression because we’ve decided that we’re comfortable with white people killing non-white people. This is reflected most clearly in our nation’s criminal justice system. Black people make up ​13.4%​ of the United States population and ​34%​ of people executed since the death penalty was ​reinstated​ by the Supreme Court in 1976. Black male criminal offenders receive sentences which are 19.2% longer than their similarly situated white counterparts, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. ​It’s also reflected in our popular culture. Consider five well-known and well-acclaimed movies and television shows — “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos,” “Ozark,” “Goodfellas” and “Narcos.” All five are about organized crime, and portray at least some criminals sympathetically.

In a country where “gang violence” is considered a threat to public safety and ​the president touts his record against MS-13​, why do we sometimes consider organized crime to be an entertaining and exciting phenomenon? We can’t ignore how race plays into this disparity. Four of the five aforementioned movies and shows are about white people, and the only two where the criminal organization is depicted villainously are also the only two where the criminal organization is run by non-white people. The distinction between “organized crime” and “gang crime” itself is nothing more than a difference in the perceived race of the criminal, and therefore in the sympathy given to the offense.

I believe there are two measures America needs to take to effectively address its relationship to violence and race. First, we need to reframe the national conversation to humanize perpetrators of violence, especially in those racial and ethnic groups that have had their human dignity denied. Obviously, violence is a moral evil, and some acts of violence are more justified than others. By talking about violence broadly, we can run the risk of equating relatively insignificant acts of individual violence and horrific acts of collective violence on a global scale. While recognizing violence for what it is, we must also recognize that all violence is committed by human persons, who have reason, conscience, judgement and that basic dignity which demands respect. Sympathy can no longer be only extended to white people — it must be extended to all. Second, we must take whatever action we can to stop the cycle of violence. We need to abolish the death penalty, restructure policing and prisons and reconsider our military’s role in making peace. I, as an individual, cannot stop another individual from committing an act of violence against me. I ​can​ decide not to respond with violence, even if it’s reasonable and expected that I do so — that’s what mercy demands. I can — and must — also work to change the social structures and systems that sustain the cycle of violence.

P.S. I recommend reading “Just Mercy​,” though I do strongly warn there are disturbing accounts of domestic abuse, sexual assault, racial terrorism and murder, and that it takes an emotional toll on the reader. For accounts of systemic racism in general, I also recommend the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in Philosophy, with a minor in Constitutional Studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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