As I follow the media stories surrounding the tragic death of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy who was shot and killed while he was playing in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, I’m reminded of a quote from writer Syreeta McFadden, “Only in America can a dead black boy go on trial for his own murder.” In November 2014, Rice was shot by police after an individual called 911 and reported that a “juvenile” with a gun that was “probably fake” was disturbing passersby. A security video of the encounter reveals that police leapt out of the car and immediately opened fire, not even giving Rice a chance to put down the toy pistol or explain himself.
Nearly a year later, Rice’s mother is attempting to secure justice for her lost son and calling for Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice and who had already been let go from employment with another police department for instability, to be criminally charged. Just last week, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor released reports claiming that the shooting was “reasonable.” Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, is challenging this assertion by calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the situation. Indeed, understanding how a preteen, even one with a toy gun, could be seen as such a severe threat that police would fatally injure him is difficult. Unfortunately, Tamir Rice is just one of far too many black boys and men who have been victims of an ugly combination of police violence and racial stereotyping.
While criticized for not having a specific agenda, the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to tackle such broad concepts as the racial stereotyping and the racial biases that still infect our daily lives; its goals go beyond just legal or legislative reforms. Black Lives Matter draws our attention to the ways in which our society regularly dismisses black lives. For instance, individuals in the black community in the US are disproportionately more likely to face unemployment, food insecurity, and poverty than their white counterparts. However, instead of probing the ways in which our society disadvantages people of color because of their race so that they are more likely to experience these hardships, those with the power to mitigate and even correct these inequities all too often decide to look the other way. Concrete policy reforms, such as more rigorous police oversight, are certainly necessary, but the root of the problem is racism. And racism so permeates our society and even our own consciousness that it is not a problem that can be solved with one single message, despite the media’s desire to distill Black Lives Matter into a soundbite.
However, Black Lives Matter has expressed a deep commitment to human rights and combating the dehumanization of black individuals, sharing many of the goals and values of humanism. Both are movements dedicated to expanding justice, rectifying inequality, and promoting empathy. For this reason, I am often dismayed when I see humanists stating “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter.” Discussing the ways in which black lives matter, especially in a society where all too often black lives don’t matter, is not a dismissal of all lives or of police officers’ lives. Instead, it is a bold assertion that confronts the racial oppression that, sadly, still exists in our society and that proclaims the black community deserves not only to live but to thrive. Tamir Rice’s life mattered, and it is vitally important that the justice system recognize that his life, like so many other black lives, was significant.
Earlier this year, after the riots in Baltimore, Maryland, following the death of Freddie Gray, the American Humanist Association and the Frederick Douglass Society of Baltimore released a joint statement in which both groups came together to “denounce the irrationality of racism and violence.” Racism, as many humanists know, is irrational because race has no biological basis. As a social construct, however, race is a disturbingly powerful category that still holds sway upon how many people think and even act.
For Tamir Rice, racism was deadly. It is unreasonable and irrational and tragic that a twelve-year-old boy would be killed merely for acting like a twelve-year-old boy. The humanist community should certainly be quick to call out this unreasonableness, but it should also be willing to listen to what others such as Black Lives Matter activists, who are on the frontlines of these issues, have to say. Part of acknowledging that black lives matter is, after all, also allowing black voices to speak—so we can understand how to be better allies.