13 July 2015
The politics of crime: when should the President speak out?
Whenever a black man has been killed by police recently, activists appear on the scene and are accused of exploiting tragedies -- which in such accusatory accounts are never anything more than tragedies -- for unwholesome political purposes. Now, as so often, reactionaries believe they have caught President Obama in a double standard, but only reveal their own. Republicans, radio talkers, and the rest of the usual suspects (here's a sample) want us to believe that Obama has a moral responsibility to address the killing of Kathryn Steinle earlier this month in San Francisco, allegedly by an illegal alien with a criminal record who reportedly was shielded from deportation because Frisco is a "sanctuary city." If Obama can speak out about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others, his critics say, there is at least as much reason for him to speak out about the Steinle case. Since no one can reasonably expect the President to comment on every murder in this country, however much they ask that he mourn blacks killed by blacks as much as blacks killed by whites, the reasoning seems to be this: Steinle was white and her alleged killer Hispanic, making this a racial crime. They reason further that if Obama does not condemn the murder of Steinle with as much fervor as he has condemned the killings of black men, then the life of a white woman must matter less to him than the life of a black man. They suspect also that Obama is reluctant to place blame where it is thought to belong, with the "sanctuary city" policy and federal policies that seem soft on violent immigrant crime. From what little I've read about the San Francisco case, it looks like immigration policies do need an overhaul. If the suspect had prior convictions for violent crime on top of being in the country illegally, he shouldn't have been eligible for any kind of "sanctuary," and if any community's sanctuary policy requires it not to ask questions about an alien's criminal past, that policy needs to change. But does it follow from that that the President needs to lead the mourning for Kathryn Steinle? Must he take note of all interracial crime? To demand that is to be historically color-blind in an intellectually unsustainable way. Does anyone have any ground for believing that Steinle's murder was a hate crime? Does anyone really believe that all interracial crime is equal in the eyes of history? It must be equal in the eyes of the law, of course, but history is a different and in some ways more rigorous tribunal. The President's bully pulpit, meanwhile, is a different tribunal from either of these. It is political and democratic. In his role as rhetorical representative of all the American people, he will eventually speak if enough people clamor for it. But that shouldn't persuade anyone that the killing of Steinle, abhorrent as it is, is historically equivalent to the shooting of unarmed (albeit "resisting") blacks by police. Everyone takes some murder for granted, but many of us feel that it's especially bad if certain people, most likely those most like ourselves, are murdered, and it's even worse if certain other people do the killing. Those who make a great show of mourning Steinle aren't proving that "all lives matter." They most likely don't even believe that themselves. Didn't many of the same people recoil at any public mourning of the deaths of Martin, Brown et al? If they think Obama should mourn Steinle as much as those others, let them acknowledge that those deaths were as much injustices as the death they denounce now. Until they can do that, they have no business judging anyone else's selective grief.