The Death of Tamir Rice and the Death of White Ethics

The death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, has perhaps highlighted better than any similar case both the dire need for justice system reform and the extent to which some whites struggle with even the most basic concepts of ethical thinking.    

On a frigid day in November 2014, Rice was playing with a pellet gun in an open-carry city, outside a recreation center. A 9-1-1 caller reported a “guy…probably a juvenile” pointing a gun that was “probably fake” at other people, “scaring” them. The pellet gun was missing the orange tip that indicated it was fake, and somehow the caller’s suggestion it wasn’t real (nor that Rice was likely a child) was not relayed to the officers heading to the scene.  

The police drove their vehicle onto the grass, pulled up next to Rice, and an officer-in-training, Timothy Loehmann (formerly declared unfit for duty by another police department due to emotional instability), allegedly fearing that Rice was reaching for his pellet gun, shot him within two seconds of coming to a stop.

Watch the video here; the police arrive at the 7:07 mark.

According to the Cleveland police, Loehmann had his door open and shouted three times at Rice as the vehicle approached him. The police did not park at a safe distance, take cover, and demand via loudspeaker that Rice drop the gun and surrender. Such actions would have clearly made the situation safer for themselves as well as for Rice, and possibly led to a far different ending.

After Rice was shot, his older sister, playing nearby, ran toward him, but was forced to the ground by the officers; she was handcuffed and put in the police cruiser.

Officers then stood around Tamir as he lay wounded. One officer had his hands on his hips when a man, identified by police as an FBI agent who was in the neighborhood, entered the frame and administered first aid. It was the first medical care the boy received in the four minutes that followed the shooting.

Rice was taken to the hospital, but died the following day.

Tamir Rice’s name became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists and other enraged Americans, black and white, seeking to reform a nation where, due to both conscious and subconscious anti-black biases, blacks are far more likely to be killed by police than whites.

In court, the city blamed the boy, insistent of his “failure…to exercise due care to avoid injury” and claimed the boy’s family was suffering damages “caused by their own acts.”

This is a pattern of white behavior seen throughout American history: blacks, even those who are children, or unarmed, or nonviolent, are consistently blamed for their own deaths, not only due to their actions toward police in the moment, but life choices beforehand.

Black victims, writes Anthea Butler,

…are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”

Early news reports on the Charleston church shooting followed a similar pattern. Cable news coverage of State Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME who we now know is among the victims, characterized his advocacy work as something that could ruffle feathers. The habit of characterizing black victims as somehow complicit in their own murders continues.

In other words, black foolishness, shortsightedness, aggressive nature, or criminality lead to black deaths. “If you don’t want to get killed by police, stop breaking the law!”

This line of thinking conservative whites use is rarely applied to themselves or their own children. If a white conservative, or his or her son or daughter, ever made the mistake of stealing cigars, illegally selling cigarettes, mouthing off, disobeying, or even getting physical with a police officer, said white conservative would likely not find a policeman justified in shooting to kill. He or she would expect the police to find a nonviolent, non lethal solution to the situation. He or she would want to live, or want his or her child to live, to see a constitutionally-guaranteed day in court.

Even prosecutor Tim McGinty, the white attorney assigned to show the grand jury what criminal charges the officers could possibly be charged with, participated in blaming the boy for his death.

After the grand jury refused to indict the policemen, a common occurrence in the U.S. judicial system for police that kill both whites and blacks, McGinty explained police actions in this case were “reasonable” and that Rice’s “size made him look much older” and that he had “been warned his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day…”  

In other words, Rice’s physical appearance and his refusal to listen to reason are why he is in a grave, not the fact the police are likely infected by conscious or subconscious anti-black sentiment, didn’t give Rice a reasonable chance to surrender, and don’t carry non lethal bullets, a technology readily available that could save thousands of American lives.

McGinty, abandoning any facade of neutrality, said, “…the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.”

The victim’s family declared in a statement:

Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son, and acting instead like the police officers’ defense attorney… In a time in which a nonindictment for two police officers who have killed an unarmed black child is business as usual, we mourn for Tamir, and for all of the black people who have been killed by the police without justice. In our view, this process demonstrates that race is still an extremely troubling and serious problem in our country and the criminal-justice system.

McGinty recommended to the grand jury that no charges be filed. A Washington Post editorial explained recently how grand juries are designed

…to be a tool of prosecutors. They don’t hear from both sides in a case, like a trial jury would. They hear only from the prosecutor, who decides what evidence and testimony is presented.

The family called on the Department of Justice to “conduct a real investigation,” and quickly a petition for such an inquiry and a new jury exploded online.

To many conservative white Americans, this was a tragedy, a tragic misunderstanding, but police actions were justified, meaning right or reasonable, because the police believed Rice was about to pull out a real gun and open fire.

This, of course, ignores the fact that had the officers parked at a distance and tried to talk Rice into putting down his fake gun, which he probably would have, the officers would have felt much safer than if they were mere feet away from the boy after charging in. The police put themselves in “danger.”

Tamir Rice’s death revealed how confused conservative white ethics have become, marked by the inability to apply the same set of moral principles to others that are applied to oneself or one’s own family.

The decisions of the police, and the decision of the grand jury, that left Tamir Rice dead and his killers free are deemed reasonable and right by many conservative whites. Yet if one such conservative white had a son, daughter, friend, spouse, or sibling who made the same “mistakes” as Tamir Rice (not heeding a warning, being large for his or her age, playing with a gun without an orange tip in an open-carry city, not throwing up his or her hands the instant the police arrived, etc.), would ideas concerning what’s reasonable and right change?

If said conservative white could say honestly, “If it was my son, the police acted reasonably in killing him” then he or she has been morally consistent. This writer finds that idea, that justification for his or her child’s death, equally disgusting as the justification for Rice’s murder, but at least ethical standards have been applied equally to oneself and others.

If said conservative white has a change of heart, and says, “If it was my son, the police actions were not justified,” we can see how bankrupt white ethics are in matters of race. If one is so willing to say police acted rightly and reasonably when shooting Tamir Rice, why would it not be the same for your own loved ones, were all other factors (words, behaviors, perceptions, etc.) identical?        

This is likely a testament to the conscious and subconscious racism virtually all American whites have, according to psychological studies, a demonstration that black lives are not as worthy of life as white lives in the minds of many conservative whites.

True, such a response could suggest that one values the lives of one’s family more than those of other families, an idea that could be based in evolutionary fact, yet an idea any ethical person can nevertheless decide to be abhorrent and any critical thinker can realize likely ignores, without cause, the subconscious prejudices scientific study has revealed to be present.

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