On Saturday night, Balch Springs, Texas, police officer Roy Oliver opened fire into a car full of teenagers who were attempting to leave a party. As a result, he fatally shot and killed 15-year-old and high school freshman, Jordan Edwards.
The Dallas News reports that Officer Oliver has since been terminated, but we know that won’t necessarily solve the quick and negligent actions of law enforcement in taking the life of yet another black child. By all accounts, Edwards was attempting to leave the party and get home safely, and yet he never made it there. What’s worse, what has happened since his untimely death: the validation of Edwards’ life only because of his academic excellence.
We’ve seen this happen before: a young black person isn’t doing anything wrong, law enforcement somehow becomes involved and reacts inappropriately, and those combined actions eventually lead to the death of another black teenager. Any innocent, unarmed teen shot by a police officer is tragic (and a crime), so why do so many of us focus our efforts of talking about how “good” the victim was, instead of forcing a conversation of how a victim deserved to live regardless of that respectability?
Immediately after news was released of Edwards’ death, many people took it to social media to express their disdain of what happened. Artists like hip-hop entertainer, Lecrae, expressed how upset he was over Edwards’ death, noting his potential future, his age, and high grade point average.
I understand why we feel the need to do this. When black people die, systems of white supremacy often say that if we had acquiesced to the carceral state, then we wouldn’t be killed by law enforcement. It’s the ultimate “black people only die because we don’t follow rules that will help us live.” Surely, this places the onus on black people to be good citizens, whatever that may mean, instead of on the state to protect our alleged inalienable rights. But we’ve always known that no matter how much comply, we still die. No matter how good our grades are, we still die. No matter how much we raise our hands, we still die.
This is the same system that allowed for the killing of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor, who was killed in front of his child and girlfriend, who streamed it live on Facebook for everyone to see. In the video, filmed July 2016, she explained that after being pulled over for a broken taillight, her boyfriend was shot multiple times while reaching for his license. That’s it, a license. The officers knew this, and it still didn’t matter.
This is the same system that allowed for the killing of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man who was held on the ground and shot outside of a convenient store 24 hours before Castile last year. And, just yesterday, we learned that the Justice Department will not charge the police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Sterling, thus continuing a system that allows law enforcement to get away with crimes against black bodies.
These are just two black people who, for what it’s worth, followed proper instructions, complied with interactions of law enforcement, and were still killed. We know this, and yet, we focus so much of our efforts on validating our own black lives for people who will never find value in them. Surely, it’s critical that we address what complying and still dying says about the safety of black and brown young people.
It’s clear that whether we fit a profile and lift our hands up to surrender, black and Latinx people are not safe from the negligence of racial policing and the racism of the person pulling the trigger. But it’s also just as important that we address the perceived necessity of immediately discussing how “good” we are and using that framing of why we deserved to live.
We always deserve to live. Let’s stop validating why we deserve to live for institutions that don’t care — and will justify — why we died.
Each of us deserve to live a life free of police violence: academic stars, students with poor grades, the incarcerated, those free from prison violence — all of us. For the last four years, we have emphatically screamed #BlackLivesMatter but continue to show how we care more about certain populations of black people. The good black people, the acceptable black people, the black people whose stories will resonate most with a larger white audience; an audience that still won’t care. If they happen to be impassioned by a story, it’s only because the narratives create the perfect victim. Advocacy doesn’t require perfection, it requires recognizing a harm and addressing it accordingly.
The “he was a really good kid” narrative is what’s causing so many to react so negatively against systematic violence. It unintentionally creates a hierarchy of life and death, as if a person perceived to be “bad” because of poor grades, or whose life doesn’t align according to an American version of success, needs little-to-no empathy. What we are really saying is that “bad” black people deserve to die, or at least don’t need our vocal outrage. Our lives always matters — don’t let respectability convince you otherwise.
Any unarmed teen shot by the police is tragic and triggers a rightful indignation. To be sure, even armed ones being shot and killed by law enforcement are devastating, because police are trained in deescalation, despite it rarely being applied to black people.
I have three degrees, some would say an academic success, and yet I hope society doesn’t hyper-focus on that if police take my life. Talk about law enforcement and systems of policing blackness, discuss my community involvement and love for all black people. But don’t relish in me doing everything right and still dying. This isn’t novel.
We must stop being surprised that violent systems take the life of people we consider as good, productive citizens. Compliance isn’t the issue; our blackness — and an unnecessary fear attached thereto — is. And, if Jordan Edwards didn’t receive a single good grade, he should still be alive.
Edwards shouldn’t have died Saturday night, and it had nothing to do with his excellent grade point average. One day, we will understand that young black people matter regardless of their ability to succeed in the classroom.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.