Other People’s Problems

It is easy to make someone “the other.” I learned this recently in a class on Intersectionality. Race, class, gender, and whatever else we see as forming our identity, “intersect” to create our unique way of looking at the world.

We are all people with intersectional lives. And we can’t chose the side that better defines us, because there isn’t one. But when it comes to other people, sometimes we don’t look at the intersections, we look at skin color or economic background so we can neatly compartmentalize them into “the other.” Problems “other” people face are not my own, we tell ourselves.

I was reminded of how often we do this and why while skimming through the New York Times. The NYT dove deeply into an issue that I am well-aware of, but that I don’t see reported on very frequently, black-on-black gun violence. The NYT analyzed 358 shootings with 4 or more casualties and found the typical victim was most often a black male, between the ages of 18-30 years old. Daily shootings in impoverished parts of cities like Cincinnati have a death toll of 11,000 annually. But this is a problem of the “other,” in this case African-Americans, so we don’t hear about it. What if this type of violence were occurring in wealthy, white suburbs?

In our collective consciousness we want to believe that ending violence is a national priority, but in our shared inactivity we continue to allow it. The constant cry that accompanies our tears is “When will it stop?” But it doesn’t. The sad truth remains; “the single, strongest predictor of the gun homicide rate is the proportion of an area’s population that is black.”

What is true for guns, is also true for drugs. The drug epidemic gripping black and brown communities all across the country for years is now reported on as a recently occurring phenomenon because it has finally made its way into middle class, white communities. The NYT ran a story in October, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,” chronicling the change of heart we have towards heroin now that is a problem of middle class, white communities.

From the article:

“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.”

I have great empathy for any family or individual suffering from drug addiction. But I can’t help but think that while it was “only” those other people suffering, we did little to alleviate the toll it took. And we most definitely were not going to label it a public health crisis. It was purely a criminal matter.

Our inability to see ourselves in our neighbors has led to collective paralysis around social issues and complicity in growing the prison industrial complex. So long as we can populate prisons with users and pushers that are most certainly not “us,” everything is fine. But once the face of drugs changes, then we want a gentler approach to heroin addiction.

It is unfortunate that tragedies like gun violence or drug addiction only resonate when they strike across an intersection they are not supposed to. The mass shooting in Newton, CT was one of them. On that terrible day in December, gun violence no longer just lived in ghetto communities. It came to the suburbs where it didn’t belong and affected kids who didn’t deserve to die.

Does it take unthinkable acts of violence for us to remember that our neighbors (no matter their skin color, paycheck size, or educational attainment) deserve to live in safe communities, free from violence?

How long before we realize there is no “other?” That the many intersections that define us, also connect us.