It was a big surprise yesterday to hear about the death of Rodney King, whose beating by LAPD officers in 1991 led to a trial, to the acquittal of the police officers involved, and to subsequent race riots. I was young and living far away when all this occurred, but I remember the event as a pivotal moment. As a young, middle-class white girl in a primarily while suburb, I had no awareness of what life in this country was like for so many others. We’d learned about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King in school, surely life was great for everyone now?
Rodney King’s famous question, “can’t we all get along?” is no less relevant today than it was decades ago. Furthermore, the question is still tied to issues of race and masculinity. To break it down by gender, three-quarters of murder victims in this country are male and men are also far more likely than women to be committing violent crimes. Domestic violence remains a scourge that kills 6-7 people a day in the U.S.—the vast majority of victims being women. In terms of race, in 2005 almost half of all murder victims in the U.S. were African American males, putting young black men at a much higher risk of being victims of violence than their peers of other races. African American men are also more likely to end up in jail. Nearly 40% of male prisoners in this country are African American, a statistic that is far higher than the balance of the population. Does this reflect a “culture of violence,” or does it reflect a system of justice where the young, black, and poor often receive inadequate representation and are often not judged by juries of their “peers?”
As a white woman, it’s still tricky for me to try and walk in another person’s shoes or make judgments about what life is like for others. But I can say this: Every American should see something troubling in these statistics. Race issues are still alive and well in this country. Poverty is still alive and well in this country, and is likely feeding the problems of violence and crime in urban areas. Rodney King himself struggled with substance abuse and was unable to find steady work in the years before his passing. But King did leave a legacy and provoked a change in the justice system. Maybe his death at such a relatively young age can prompt us to again reflect on the question he asked so long ago. And maybe it can prompt us to do more.