07/30/2015 04:03 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Outrage Over The Death Of A Lion, But Not Black Women And Men?

Adam Bettcher via Getty Images

People of color are dying in custody on a regular basis in this country, but the clearest outrage is being directed against a lion dying at the hands of a hunter in Zimbabwe. I've pointed this imbalance out to on social media and have received some interesting responses, not all of them predicted.

For the most part, folks in my circles have concurred that that there is something telling and deeply disturbing about the fact that the killing of Cecil the lion has inspired many mostly-white, non-activist folks to take action against the hunter. The animal rights and species bigotry movements may have finally found its issue.

The most productive and enduring flash points are those that reveal systemic and structural problems (such as the political and financial underpinnings of big game hunting). Movements centered on such issues are enduring and longstanding because they have to be; a solution to big game hunting will require addressing how multiple systems that affect us all, including tourism and government, will have to be rethought and disassembled through hard legal and social reconfigurations. This process will require an invested public to move beyond gut feelings and to educate itself on the historical legacy of colonialism and the current condition of neo-imperialism.

To put it bluntly, the death of the lion has inspired rank-and-file people to become, if not activists, activist sympathizers, who are empowered to voice their outrage and establish the dominant reading of the case.

What disturbs me, then, is that the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others have not inspired a similarly unanimous outrage. Despite the work of activists to keep these deaths in the public conversation and to connect these deaths to a troubling trend of police aggression against people of color, no dominant reading has prevailed in public discourse. Rather than reading for system and structural problems, these deaths have been taken on a case-by-case basis, each time with room made available for a discussion of aggravating factors like tone of voice and the relative innocence of the victim.

Statements intended to elucidate the problem and galvanize the public such as "I can't breathe," and "Black Lives Matter" have regularly met with counter-statements like "I CAN breathe" and "All Lives Matter." Such counter-statements are meant to call into question the validity of movements advocating for police reform and racial justice. They reject the notion of a coherent reading of structural inequity and undermine the possibility of sustained outrage.

Of course, not everyone sees these two cases as an either-or proposition. Some are even inclined to read these events simultaneously, acknowledging how the legacies of imperialism that make big game hunting possible are sustained by ideas of racial entitlement. I agree that there is a useful connection to be gleaned from this reading. However, I remain disturbed by how such a reading re-centers whiteness at the expense of black humanity. Yes, a comparative reading permits us to see the vast network of white supremacy at play. But what is missing from the comparison is the call to action. Sure, it is easier to shut down a dentist's office than it is to shut down a police department, but can't we at least attempt to shut down dangerous and devastating police practices?

We should be able to advocate for black humanity without dubious recourse to shared "African origin," as though the problem here is American's treatment of Africans. The exploitation of African resources, including its artifacts, minerals, oil and humans, is a serious problem that citizens of developed and developing countries need to address. That said, the invocation of "Africa" in relation to the killing of black folks in America sidesteps the problem of America's willingness to kill its own citizens, deaths that are visited upon those who are not white. When we read deeply, the only explanation that can accommodate this deadly trend is home-grown white supremacy. The hard task, the one that makes all the difference, is the extent to which that recognition will move us to move us to action and give voice to our outrage -- in the name of humanity.

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