The public outcry for gun legislation after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was swift and forceful. Suddenly, there was a narrative shift in the media that something had to be done about gun violence in America. Vice President Joe Biden was tapped to head up a task force with real support from the public and the beltway. The reaction to Newtown, Conn. both politically and socially, was appropriate and yet also highlights the lack of response to the almost daily incidents of gun violence in inner city communities like Chicago.
Simply put: we respond differently when White children are killed versus when Black children suffer the same fate.
“We are only a few generations away from Black people not having any value in our society beyond being chattel,” Tom Burrell author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority told EBONY.com. "We were judged to be three-fifths of a person and that was because of politics.”
Burrell, of course, is referring to the infamous compromise where the Northern and Southern states agreed to count Black slaves as three-fifths of a person, allowing Southern states to boost their populations for the purposes of tax apportionment and representation in Congress—which was recently, and controversially, heralded by Emory University President James Wagner as an example of the political system at it's best.
When you think about the reactions to Newtown versus the reactions to the death of a Trayvon Martin or Hadiya Pendleton, “[You can] connect it back to the overall devaluation of Black bodies that Black people as a whole except in chattel slavery. They had no intrinsic value. We placed a monetary value [on Black people] based in labor and their ability to reproduce,” Professor Blair L.M. Kelley, author of Right to Ride, told EBONY.com.
“It’s amazing in the sense that Black urban bodies are framed as a scourge. As pestilence rather than a population. We have not washed the residue of this history off completely and are still seen primarily as a problem,” Kelley said.
This historical context connects almost directly to the way we devalue Black bodies today.
“Let’s not pretend we don’t value life differently,” said Burrell, “the 26 lost lives in Newtown were [almost all] little White children and the 65 lives lost this year in Chicago were little Black children. We tend to rate the value of a human life. We are all brainwashed. We are all victims of that psychological conditioning, where we value some types of lives over other types of lives. The only thing that we can do is hope that as a result of this attention after Sandy Hook that we can piggyback on that and get a little bit of attention paid to the 65 kids. In some ways, the death of Hadiya Pendelton is a bridge to Sandy Hook.”
Professor Kelley agrees with that sentiment, “I care about the well-being of both communities [Chicago and Newtown]. Children deserve peace and calmness as they go to their schools. I grieve equally for both. Black Americans grieve equally.”
“When the NAACP was doing test cases, in the 1940s and 1950s, they always made sure the people they selected were pristine,"Burrell said. "We are still living in the same kind of standard where we have to hold up models of perfection to seek justice. With Trayvon Martin we searched for his own pathologies. Trayvon was unarmed, and yet criminal and menacing to an armed adult in that situation is quite something. It’s really disheartening.”
When White teenagers are gunned down—which has happened in many school shootings—we don't hear about the suspension or criminal records of the victims. Only the suspects are on trial in the court of public opinion. Yet Martin has been as scrutinized as the man who killed him, if not more. And the majority of the children killed in Chicago, most of them too young to have any record of any punishment outside of a time-out or detention, are killed and buried without much media attention or national mourning at all.
"Hadiya Pendelton" seems poised to become a name that is as tragically as familiar to most Americans as Travyon Martin. Both tragedies resulted in expressions of sympathy directly from President Obama, but there were clear distinctions in the reaction of the mainstream media once Martin’s suspensions and disciplinary history began to color him unworthy of universal sympathy. This respectability requirement coupled with the valuation of Black bodies generally also links back to recent history. But even with her good-girl reputation, nice family, and promising future, it seems that the national outrage over Pendleton's death was relatively short-lived.
"The prism with which we view Black children as a society links back to minstrelsy, where pickaninny characters portrayed an image of Black children as stupid, animalistic, and disposable," Kelley said. "They raise themselves, they don’t need parenting, they die easily, and their deaths were considered funny. This is where this residue of our distant past resides in our consciousness. A lot of how we react today is grounded in this minstrel troupe.”