Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mourning black men and lions: Why the murders of Sam and Cecil are different and yet the same

Cecil the lion was lured from the refuge of Hwange park in Zimbabwe in early July and shot by a trophy hunter who paid lots of money for that experience. It is reported that he, and the professional hunters he hired, likely knew exactly what they were doing. Zimbabwe wants that trophy hunter extradited by the U. S. to face criminal charges.

A few days later in The United States, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sam Dubose, a black man, was killed by a white police officer. Despite eye witness accounts (by fellow police officers), the body camera shows a senseless killing and the officer is now under indictment for murder.

The question now has been raised about why Cecil's murder sparks so much more intense emotional reaction in the media than Sam's murder. That difference is a topic of debate in the social media. Most recently, today, in a NY Times op-ed Roxane Gay writes about that difference.

I am thinking about how and when people choose to show empathy publicly. Cecil the lion was a majestic creature and a great many people mourn his death, the brutality of it, the senselessness of it. Some people also mourn the deaths, most recently, of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, but this mourning doesn’t seem to carry the same emotional tenor. A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost. He certainly doesn’t have to. He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about. Human beings are majestic creatures, too. May we learn to see this majesty in all of us.

So why is that? Why, either in reality or in perception, is the reaction to Cecil more intense than the reaction to Sam? I offer a simple answer. In the U. S., maltreatment of black citizens by law enforcement has been and is now, unfortunately, commonplace. And such incidents do make it into media reports. In contrast, the poaching of rare species in African countries is also commonplace but those incidents are not usually reported in our media. The base rates of animal kills and human kills may be the same (although I suspect the incidence of poaching is far higher), but we hear more about the human tragedies here at home than we hear about the animal tragedies occurring in the "dark continent" every day.

For instance, the NY Times reminds us of cases of the use of force and the role of race.

The death of Mr. Dubose, who was black, at the hands of Officer Tensing, who is white, joined a string of recent cases — in places including Staten Island; Cleveland; Baltimore; North Charleston, S.C.; and Ferguson, Mo., among others — that have raised hard questions about law enforcement’s use of force and the role of race in policing. Video cameras have recorded many of these episodes and other, nonlethal encounters — like the arrest of Sandra Bland, who died three days later in a Texas jail cell — offering disturbing evidence of the confrontations that often contradicts the accounts of those involved.

A Google search for reports of poaching in Africa shows very few reports in our local newspaper, the Daily Star. The case of Cecil apparently prompted this more general article on poaching and other pressures on African lions. (To be fair, the NY Times reports frequently on African conservation issues, but, as far as I can tell, such reports are rare in more local media.)

It appears that Ms. Gay does understand my point.

Understand that the seemingly endless list of black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement or racist zealots or other bringers of violence is not just a news peg or a matter of "identity politics." This is the world we live in. The traumatic blur of videos, this stark imagery of how little black life matters, takes its toll. It creates a weariness I worry will never go away.

Previously I have voiced the same concern about the weariness induced by media coverage of mass shootings.

Hence my hypothesis. We don't suffer the same media-induced weariness about Cecil as we do about Sam. That is why the reactions to Cecil are more intense. I care about Cecil - a lot. But I also care about the "weariness" which blunts our reaction to the violence we humans inflict on each other.

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