Backgrounder: Whose Lives Matter?

January 12, 2017

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

“Truth hurts no cause that is just.”—Mohatma Gandhi

During the holidays, Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, had an article with the headline “‘All Lives Matter’ ornament at Minnesota store sparks online backlash.” The Star Tribune reported that a shopper took a picture of the ornament, available at Gertens Garden Center, and posted it on Facebook.

As a consequence, many negative reviews appeared on the Gertens Facebook page. For example, one person remarked that carrying the ornament is “insulting and offensive.” The Star Tribune reported that a former president of the Minneapolis NAACP suggested that the local company took “a swipe at the Black Lives Matter movement during the Christmas season.” She went on to say that “This time of year is very painful and challenging for family members and loved ones mourning those who have died as a result of police violence. Beyond that, it is clear that all lives will not matter until black lives matter in this country.”

She could have added that this time of year is also painful to the family of Dylan Noble, a white man. The Fresno police chief who saw the video of the shooting of Dylan Noble called it “extremely disturbing.”

The death of an unarmed white man, though disturbing, is not front page news.  The current narrative in the media, from governors, and even from the President, is that police officers kill people of color and few others. The reality is quite different: the November 2011 “Arrest- Related Deaths, 2003- 2009– Statistical Tables,” (NCJ 235385) from the  Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows that 42.1% of arrest-related deaths are white, 31.8% are black, and around 20% are Hispanic.

Perhaps all lives should matter. Certainly the traditional religions would suggest as much. Matthew 10.29 asks, “are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will…Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” People are not sparrows. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, each human being has a spiritual nature. The Old Testament says that each human being is an imago Dei, an image of God. Dylan Noble was no less an image of God than Trayvon Martin. As Galatians might put the matter, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And there is nether black nor white. All lives matter.

Other religions state that we are spiritual creatures. The idea is found in Islam: “I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; you proceed one from another…” (Quran 3:195)

Hinduism asserts that “the atman is the brahman and the brahman is the atman.” ‘The self is the divine and the divine is the self.’

The most appropriate response, therefore, to people who are ‘different’ may be a loving acceptance of another creature of God. The temporal differences are less important than the eternal and shared spiritual identity of being human. The recommendation that follows from such a thought is that all lives matter.

Furthermore, a person need not invoke religion to recommend that each individual has value. That is likely what Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the UN, had in mind when he referred
to “the dignity and sanctity of every individual” eleven years ago.

The preceding reasoning is my preferred argument that all lives matter. However, the popular narrative, despite the data above, that arrest-related deaths falls mostly on blacks prevails. Hence, it might be worth looking at empirical evidence more thoroughly. For instance, anyone with a lick of sense can see that since the population is approximately 75% white and 13% black, of course a higher percentage of arrest-related deaths will be white. In other words, blacks are disproportionately represented in the data on arrest-related deaths.

The disproportionate representation of blacks, however, invites an examination of data on violence. Blacks, who comprise 13 % of the population, commit 46% of the homicides; with regard to interracial violence, Table 42, Personal Crimes of Violence in the Bureau of Justice Statistics ( ) has data from 1996 to 2007. In 2007, 3,262,660 violent offenses against whites were reported, of which  13.3 % were committed by black, or 433,933 violent offenses; 562,470   violent offenses against blacks were reported , of which 9.9%  were committed by whites, or  55,684 violent offenses.

By raw numbers alone, blacks commit 7.8 times as many violent offenses against whites.  Were demographic profiles also used, with blacks being approximately 15% of the population and whites around 70%, the figures are worse by about a factor of 5.

Recent data from a 2013 FBI uniform crime report suggests that the pattern has not changed significantly. Of the 2,491 black homicide victims, 189 were killed by a white offender, or 7.7 %. Over 90 % of black victims were slain by a black offender. Of the 3,005 white homicide victims, 409 were killed by a black offender, or 13.6 %. As is apparent, most homicide victims are killed by people of their own race.

Of the 5,723 homicides, 2,654 were committed by a black offender. Therefore, if blacks represent 13% of the population, then that 13% disproportionately committed 46% of the homicides.

It’s worth noting that 3,976 homicides victims were male. As the 2005 report also stated, men were the more violent sex: 5,058 of the 5,723 homicides were committed by men, or 88.4 %.

The data on violence does not lead easily into reconciliation and harmonious race relations. Nonetheless, empirical evidence suggests that society might find more peace were we to think and act as though all lives matter, “for there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” there is neither white nor black, when it comes to victims of violence, by police or by others.

And there is no male nor female, black nor white, when it comes to concern for justice. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Broder remarked on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech that he was surprised at how many whites were present. Maybe he was surprised that whites have a concern for justice, but MLK, Jr. was not.

He warned against “the marvelous new militancy in the Negro community,” that it “must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”

I humbly suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. was correct. All lives matter. We are not alone. We are in this world together.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches ethics at Butler University’s Lacy School of Business.


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