On Dec. 30 at 6:30 a.m., 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes was murdered in a “hail of glass and bullets” as a shooter fired into her family’s car. On Jan. 6, Harris County, Texas, police announced the arrest of suspected driver 20-year-old Eric Black Jr., who is now being charged with capital murder. Black has reportedly said that another Black man, identified as Larry Woodruffe, was the shooter. According to reports, Woodruffe was arrested separately Sunday on drug-possession charges but has not yet been charged in this case.
Both Jazmine’s mother and older sister had previously described the shooter as a white man with blue eyes. Black and Woodruffe, however, are African American. Authorities also say that they don’t believe the Barnes family was the intended target, and that the crime may have been gang-related.
At the time of the shooting, it was still dark outside, and studies have shown that trauma and stress can affect the accuracy of eyewitness identification. So it’s not surprising that Jazmine’s mother and sister described the assailant incorrectly.
When the crime was thought to be racially motivated, many people expressed further outrage at the rising tide of hate crimes after the election of Donald Trump. Now that we’ve heard the suspects are Black, I’m afraid we will allow that outrage at white supremacy and racism to abate. We’ve been desensitized to all types of violent crimes for so long. So, unfortunately, Americans are almost nonchalant when we see an act of violence as being random or gang-related.
This latest blatant and senseless act of violence not only took the life of an innocent child but also shocked a community to its core. We should not, however, stop seeing Jazmine’s death as racially motivated. It still is.
When I was growing up, my hometown of Washington, D.C., was mostly Black. I came of age during the last moments of our city’s “murder capital” era, which was, uncoincidentally, the beginning of rapid gentrification and an influx of white residents. But before that, the city was consumed by violence that encroached even upon my sheltered, privileged life. A boy in my grandmother’s neighborhood pissed off the wrong gang and was shot less than 50 feet from my bedroom window as I slept. I was 14 years old.
Most of the murders in D.C. were perpetrated by Black people against Black people. And because of this, the descriptor of “murder capital” became a comedic punchline, not a diagnosis. No one wanted to examine how systematic racism had a direct impact on the violence and terror we were facing. We were mocked, blamed and demonized for our vulnerability to gun violence. Denouncing “Black-on-Black crime” became the rallying cry of those who wanted to place the blame solely on the shoulders of Black people, as though history and systemic inequality had no bearing on our crisis.
Black parents are more than twice as likely as white parents to worry about their children getting shot. And statistics show that perhaps they’re not worried enough. In 2016, for example, non-Hispanic Black men were nearly 10.4 times more likely than non-Hispanic white men to die by homicide in the United States.
Our government responded to these alarming homicide rates by declaring a war on crime, which resulted in the mass incarceration and lethal policing of Black and brown people. Instead of addressing the societal inequities that underlined the problem, officials presented us with a nonsolution that has made our problems worse.
Even when Black deaths aren’t caused by gun violence, they are almost always rooted in systemic anti-Blackness. Across the United States, Black infants die at a rate that’s more than twice as high as that of white infants. In D.C., Ward 8, the poorest in the city and over 93 percent Black, has an infant mortality rate 10 times higher than that of the affluent, predominantly white Ward 3.
Black women are 243 percent more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or childbirth. The median wealth of Black families might be zero by 2050, and poverty leads to a decrease in life expectancy.
I could go on forever.
But let me be clear. Neither Black or Woodruffe absolutely cannot defend their actions by invoking the injustice of systemic racism. They made a deliberate, evil choice to choose violence and they need to face the consequences of that. But as we hold them accountable, as we seek justice for Jazmine, we need to perform a deeper analysis of the problem, so that we can reduce the impact that this issue has in our communities.
As long as Black people live in a society that devalues and kills us, we can’t separate any of our deaths from racism.
Jazmine didn’t live long enough to graduate from elementary school or go to prom. She didn’t live long enough to change her college major again and again. She didn’t live long enough to fight with her mom about going on dates. She didn’t live long enough to see how vast and beautiful her life could be.
But she also didn’t live long enough to see how deeply undervalued she and others like her are in this society. She was killed by a bloody legacy of racism and disenfranchisement that she couldn’t have been fully aware of yet. I can’t imagine the confusion, the shock, the betrayal that went through her mind in that split second between breath and death.
Jazmine’s killing was an unspeakable act of violence. But the hard truth is that each of her breaths was a victory because she took each of them in a society that callously and purposely put her life at risk every day.
We can’t forget what happened to Jazmine Barnes. We can’t consign it to whatever neglected file cabinet we stuff “gang-related” deaths into. We shouldn’t stop talking about it just because her murderer wasn’t white. And we must not allow people to use her murder to engage in unproductive conversations about Black-on-Black crime.
It is our responsibility to discuss this murder in the context of a society that—with every racist policy, with every accepted disparity, with every deadly stereotype—allowed it to happen. We must not divorce conversations of race and inequality from her death. As long as racism is embedded in the soil of this country, every Black death is racially motivated.
The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and do not reflect those of ESSENCE.