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The Deaths of Two African-American Men This Week Should Catalyze a National Push for Police Reform

But if the past is any indication, they probably won’t.
Mourners gather in front of a mural painted on the wall of the convenience store where Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Mourners gather in front of a mural painted on the wall of the convenience store where Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died within 48 hours of each other.

Sterling, a 37-year-old African-American Louisiana man, was shot and killed by Baton Rouge police officers Monday night, after an altercation with two white police officers for selling CDs in front of a local supermarket. Sterling was pinned to the ground, his hands empty and his body immobilized, when an officer drew his gun and fired into his chest. While authorities reportedly removed a gun from Sterling’s pocket after the incident, we’ll never know for sure what actually happened; the responding officers’ body cameras reportedly fell off during the incident, leaving only macabre cell phone camera footage to tell the story of Sterling’s final moments.

Days later, 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot and killed by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast the whole incident to the world on Facebook Live, describing in a clear, calm voice how Castile had informed the officer he had a license for the concealed weapon on his person. When he reached for his driver’s license as instructed, the officer pulled his gun and shot him. The officer can be heard in the gruesome video frantically shouting: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hands up.” Reynolds’ four-year-old daughter was in the back seat.

Sterling and Castile join a long (and growing) list of African Americans who have died at the hands of white police officers over the last two years: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Dontre Hamilton, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. Though the circumstances of their deaths vary, the outcome remains the same.

Last night, hundreds of furious Baton Rouge residents gathered in a heated protest at the site of Sterling’s death in a scene that now seems tragically familiar. And while the Department of Justice willlead investigations into the nature of Sterling and Castile’s deaths, there’s an inescapable sense that, like the dozens that preceded them, there will be little in the way of substantive police reform to come from any government inquiries.

There’s a simple reason for that: The death of African-American citizens at the hands of police is a very real problem — but many white Americans simply don’t see any mistreatment.

Consider that, of the 1,140 Americans shot and killed by police officers in 2015, African Americans were killed at a significantly higher rate than white people, according to an ongoing tally by the Guardian. Here’s a historical comparison: While some 40 African Americans were lynched annually in the 86 years between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more than twice that number were shot by police in 2015. Despite this, 50 percent of white Americans believe that African Americans aren’t treated unfairly by the police.

Fifty percent of white Americans believe that African Americans aren’t treated unfairly by the police.

Consider that significant portions of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters describe African Americans as more “violent” and “criminal” than whites, in line with the implicit racial bias that makes white police officers perceive black suspects as more threatening than others. The dehumanization of African Americans permeates every institution meant to ensure equality under the law and has for years. It’s 2015, and whites continue to see their fellow citizens as “apelike.”

Consider the twin canards of “All Lives Matter” (itself a logical fallacy) and the “war on cops” (which doesn’t actually exist), or that Americans are evenly split on whether “reverse racism” by ethnic minorities is chipping away at the national culture. These things are all symptoms of white paranoia: Recent research indicates that whites are more likely to see the decline of anti-black bias as being accompanied by the rise of reverse racism.

Consider that, while whites overwhelmingly agree that Americans protesting against the government makes the country better, that number sharply declines when they’re asked to consider protests undertaken by African Americans against, say, police brutality. Castile was licensed to carry a concealed weapon and calmly informed the police of his right to do so; it’s doubtful you’ll see the National Rifle Association in an uproar over his Second Amendment rights.

To be sure, white America is, in many ways, slowly awakening from its indifference. In the nine months after the death of Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, data from the Public Religion Research Institute found that white Americans were slowly starting to acknowledge the racial inequality baked into the criminal justice system, from the implicit bias of beat officers to the grand juries that investigate those cops for wrongdoing. And thanks to the increasing ubiquity of bystander videos like those that documented the deaths of Sterling and Castile (and, to an extent, police body cameras), Americans are more aware of and sensitive to issues of police malfeasance than any time since Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department 25 years ago.

The twin deaths of Sterling and Castile haven’t just re-ignited the conversation sparked by the murders of Brown and Garner: They’re yet another stark reminder of white America’s indifference to the deaths of young African Americans. It’s no wonder that, while an overwhelming majority (88 percent) of African Americans believe the United States needs to continue ensuring equal treatment for blacks, some 43 percent don’t think it will ever happen. Without a more universalized outrage, the fury over government actors dealing with life and death so wantonly and brashly will remain just that: fury.

“I don’t know where we go from here because those of us who recognize the injustice are not the problem,” Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times in the days following Sterling’s death. “Law enforcement, militarized and indifferent to black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem. That this happens so often that resignation or apathy are reasonable responses is the problem.”

There will be more names, and more videos, and more protests. But based on the data, it’s unclear when exactly white Americans will stand up and realize that the excessive use of force against their neighbors matters for everyone, white or black, male or female, young or old.

“These fatal shootings are not isolated incidents,” President Barack Obama reminded Americans (appropriately, in a Facebook post) on Thursday. “They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.”

Sterling and Castile were people, with families and worlds of their own. “I miss not being able to see his face, hear his voice, feel his hug,” Sterling’s aunt told NBC News. “Alton kept you laughing.”

Castile, a cafeteria supervisor who “memorized the names of the 500 children he served every day — along with their food allergies,” was a role model for the children and parents he interacted with, one co-worker told Time. White America helped build these walls — and white Americans need to start helping to tear them down.