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All Deaths are Not Equal

POSTED: January 27, 2014, 11:00 am

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The pages of newspapers, Internet posts, radio, network and cable television news programs was preoccupied with the tragic story of the suicide of a white, suburban New Jersey college student attending the University of Pennsylvania. Her name, Madison Holleran, was attached to a story of disbelief; a smart and athletically gifted young lady who was apparently battling depression and leapt to her death from a parking garage in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. All the news accounts expressed shock that such a tragedy could befall a young person with so much promise. In death, Madison Holleran has again focused attention on the stresses of young adult life in America. Or, has she?

Just weeks after Holleran’s death, a new report reveals that Pennsylvania ranks 4th nationally in Black homicide victims. According to reports in the Philadelphia Daily News, the data from the Washington, D.C. based Violence Policy Center shows that the state had 29.02 homicides per 100,000 black civilians in 2011. The state had 419 Black homicide victims, 378 were male and of the 350 victims killed with guns, 86 percent were killed with handguns. Moreover, the data indicates half of all homicide victims in the nation in 2011 were Black despite the fact that Blacks represent just 13 percent of the nation’s population.

“Go through neighborhoods in Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Philly or Baltimore and you will see the toll those places takes on the human spirit.”

It is a safe bet that none of the 419 Black homicide victims in Pennsylvania received the type of coverage, locally or nationally, as Ms. Holleran. The overwhelming majority remain nameless and even those named fade quickly from the public’s consciousness and even quicker off the radar of the news media. All deaths are not equal. We witnessed this with the carjacking in a suburban New Jersey shopping mall that resulted in the death of a white motorist. Law enforcement moved quickly to apprehend the suspects as the story became international news as journalists here teed up a tale of urban (code for Black) menace visiting white suburbia. The killing of lawyer Dustin Friedland became a call for swift justice. In that case, the Essex County prosecutor, Carolyn Murray, did her best Elliott Ness imitation in expressing determination to apprehend those responsible for the Christmas season murder.

Of course, there are exceptions. Such as the recent tragedy of Avonte Oquendo, the autistic boy who ran out of a New York City school and whose remains washed ashore in the city’s East River. While his case garnered attention when he was missing, the fact remains that his walk out of a school building was facilitated by the seeming inattention of adults responsible for his care. His case points to the invisibility of Black children in our communities. Young Avonte was only accounted for by the technology of video cameras and his life became important when it was apparent that it might be endangered. In death his life is taking on more meaning.

Still, Black homicides are routinely covered by the media and generally treated as an inevitable consequence of urban living. There is no effort to analyze the cause of Black killings as there is in the death of Madison Holleran. Quite frankly the media and law enforcement care little about why Black people are being killed or why some Blacks kill. Our mortality is of little concern because those in positions of authority attribute our premature departures as a function of our supposed cultural ineptitude. At no time are the mass homicides of Black people examined with the same type of thoughtfulness as the death of the young University of Pennsylvania student.

Could it be that many of those homicides are also the result of depression, the desperate act of individuals who commit a different type of suicide that stems from hopelessness and despair? If a young woman who seemingly had it all can take her life, why is it too far-fetched to understand that many Blacks, particularly young Black males, who have nothing, live with an indifference to death? It is a total surrender to mortality that makes killing easy. If you place no value on your own life, why would you value the life of another human? Madison Holleran had some of the best of what life can offer; a stable family, superior secondary education, access to an elite institution of higher learning, and presumably all of the privileges and benefits of a white middle class, suburban existence. Yet, it was not enough to save her from herself. What then of the Black victims or perpetrators of violence, who exist, not live, in a world of the extreme opposite of Ms. Holleran? Go through neighborhoods in Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Philly or Baltimore and you will see the toll those places takes on the human spirit.

While I sympathize with the families of Madison Holleran and Dustin Friedland over their loss, there is a story that is untold about the victims of homicides who are Black. It is a story of depression, despair and yes, suicide. In fact, some would even say it is suicidal to think you can survive in certain neighborhoods but for many Blacks there is no option, no suburban escape. The irony of the murder of Dustin Friedland is that the tony mall in a suburban utopia where he and his wife were shopping is just minutes outside of the heart of Newark. It seems as though only when the seeming security of white life is pierced is there a societal response that seeks not only answers but solutions.

The death pall that covers urban communities is the result of decades of dysfunction driven by poverty and racism, and reinforced by political indifference and popular culture. Until we acknowledge that these statistics stem from something other than barbarity, the Black homicide count will continue as the attention is mostly focused on tragedies involving white victims.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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