When are we shown death at the hands of police?


Race can be very hard: All around the world, interaction between different racial / ethnic / religious / cultural groups can be extremely hard.

That has certainly proven to be true in this country. Consider Karen Attiah's new column in the Washington Post.

Attiah offers a perfectly reasonable complaint, one you may have heard before. Her column carries this headline:

The endless video loop of Black death is doing more harm than good

You can read her column here. She lays out her premise as shown:

ATTIAH (2/1/23): On Jan. 27, Memphis police released video of the horrific death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Black officers. Many of my Black friends and media colleagues said publicly that they would not watch the video and that Black people especially should resist the pressure to watch yet another video of someone who looks like us dying on camera.

I think they’re right. And not just for reasons of self-care.

Early in my career, I was taught that valiant and noble journalists must bear witness, so we can speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable. The inherent promise was that if we could shed light on crimes, and if the public could see, the system would change.

Video taken by police body cameras and quick-thinking bystanders now offers the public even more opportunities to bear witness to police brutality. But increasingly, I find it less ethically correct to traffic in images of Black death for the sake of imagined awareness—specifically, White awareness.

Attiah's column is taking a turn by the end of that passage, with her reference to "White awareness." Before long, she says that we're shown video of black people dying as a form of entertainment:

"Black suffering has become an industrial complex of its own, snuff films as ritual entertainment."

Have news orgs been showing the videotape from Memphis as a form of ritual entertainment? It's a fairly ugly suggestion, but there's no obvious way to answer that question.

That said, by the end of her column, Attiah takes this suggestion a bit further. Here's how her column ends:

ATTIAH: Now, I’m not saying publicly released videos don’t have value. They can, on occasion, result in legal consequences for individual officers and their departments. We can concede that the past several years of hashtags and videos have elevated Black and other scholars who have long argued for defunding and abolition, and have presented visions of alternative forms of policing.

But why must all this “good” come only after videos of Black people being killed by police have circulated on autoplay?

Little has changed systemically in the decade of #BLM. So how do we, in the media, continue justifying this normalization of Black death? How are the graphic deaths of Black people acceptable to consume? Especially when White death—yes, the police kill White people, too—gets nothing like this treatment?

I don’t have all the answers. But I can’t help feeling that these hellish loops only compound public desensitization to Black death—and are doing more harm than good.

Do videos like those from Memphis "compound" an apparently pre-existing "public desensitization to Black death?" Do such videos create a "normalization of Black death?"

We don't know how to answer such questions—but, in the highlighted section, Attiah seems to think that she's dropping a bombshell, telling readers that "the police kill White people, too." 

She wonders why we don't see videotape of those deaths—why we don't see those "snuff films."

Atiah is quite free with her unpleasant speculations, as she frequently is. That said, we've been asking that same question for years—and we'd say the answer is obvious.

Why don't we see video of white people being killed by police? Why don't we hear more about such shooting deaths?

We think the answer is fairly obvious. Mainstream news orgs refuse to discuss such events as a way of pandering to a modern-day form of what used to be called "political correctness." It's a way of performing racial concern—a way of pretending to care.

As we've noted at various times, Attiah's own Washington Post has sometimes tried to call attention to police shooting deaths of transparently innocent people who aren't black. 

The Post has sometimes tried very hard to direct attention to such non-black shooting deaths. The Post has never been able to get these events into the information flow of our major mainstream news orgs.

Attiah seems to be suggesting that such events go uncovered because our news orgs are treating black death as a form of entertainment. That strikes us as an ugly and improbable claim, but race can be very hard.

In that last past of her column, Attiah links to this report in Rolling Stone. The report describes five incidents so far this year in which police officers have shot and killed someone who was unarmed.

Two of the deceased were white. Two of the deceased were black; the race / ethnicity of the fifth is unknown. Overall, police shoot and kill about twice as many whites as blacks in any given year—but, as Attiah notes, the shooting deaths of people who aren't black tend to receive very little national coverage.

Atiah seems to think the reason for this disparity involves the white world's ugly desire for racial entertainment. We think the explanation is almost surely different. Reading Attiah, we also think that that race can be extremely hard.

Are Attiah's speculations helpful? We're prepared to suggest that they probably aren't. But such is the fruit of the brutal history created by our benighted ancestors over the course of those hundreds of years. 

We're shown black death as a form of entertainment. Easy to be very hard!


  1. "Little has changed systemically in the decade of #BLM"

    Not so. The number of blacks killed by cop is considerably lower than some years ago. It feels higher because of the prominence given to such killings.

    OTOH the number blacks killed by blacks is far higher and is increasing. These killings are given far less prominence than they deserve.

    1. All murders, including white on white, have increased since covid, as have the number of guns.

    2. The number of blacks killed by blacks is not as indicated above, furthermore, that number is dwarfed by White suicide.

      Why are Whites so sad?

    3. DavidinCal has been making these claims since 2014. They were wrong then and they're wrong today. They were made uncited and devoid of context then and. as you can see, made now.

      "Some years ago", LOL.

    4. @6:40 -- and then there is suicide by cop. To my knowledge there is no analysis of how many police shootings, especially of armed people, may in fact be suicides. The ones where a man takes his family hostage, or kills them and then kills himself, are often depressed individuals who want to die but cannot leave their families behind without anyone to support them, cannot abandon them.

      This of course does not apply to killings by police of black men who are unarmed and not seeking police attention (i.e. traffic stops and minor police interventions, such as for jaywalking or passing a $20 bill). But as long as the statistics being collected do not disentangle various situations, the numbers probably shouldn't be compared across the board, race to race, the way David keeps doing.


  2. tl;dr
    "The endless video loop of Black death is doing more harm than good"

    Whoa, bubonic plague? Already? We didn't expect it so soon during Brandon's regime.

    ...oh, my dear ... oh, dear...

  3. Daniel Shaver. The ultimate cop killing snuff film.

  4. Saying that “news orgs treating black death as a form of entertainment” (Attiah, according to Somerby) is “an ugly and improbable claim”, and yet covering it as “a way of performing racial concern—a way of pretending to care” (Somerby) is NOT an ugly and improbable claim?

    1. It’s ugly, but not at all improbable.

    2. Without evidence, it’s an unsubstantiated claim; supposedly Somerby is very opposed to this, yet engages in it himself.

  5. Race is not “hard” if you treat all others as human beings. That Somerby considers it hard says things about Somerby himself.

    If white people do not want to read articles about black death, they should stop letting cops kill unarmed black men (and no, they aren’t all young, and many wrongfully killed are not criminals).

    This isn’t rocket science. We lack the political will to make this stop, including making our entire society less vilent by getting rid of all those guns.

  6. “We’re prepared to suggest that they probably aren’t.” Hmmm… give us a call when you are actually prepared to SAY something Bob.
    These stories, and the emphasis built on them have a lot of ethical problems. First
    the program rarely just shows the clip and let’s
    you do decide what you are looking at.
    The talking head tells you to be prepared to
    be appalled and outraged in such a
    fashion that you will feel a little inhuman
    if you aren’t. Then there is repetition, you
    will be shown the clip over and over until
    you are sufficiently pissed off. Then there is
    manipulation, you have no idea what occurred
    moments before the filming, or the part of the filming they have decided to show you has
    started, and how that might affect your response.
    Newsflash: these stories are aimed at
    a demographic by news shows whose
    purpose is to make money and are
    horrified your attention might wain
    if too much complexity makes you
    lose interest.
    What I take away from this column,
    though I know it isn’t exactly the writer’s
    message, is that audiences have
    realized or remembered these things
    and are growing bored and numb.
    I still have little understanding of
    what occurred in this latest case.
    I do know all the reasons I’m
    supposed to be outraged.

    1. "The talking head tells you to be prepared to
      be appalled and outraged in such a
      fashion that you will feel a little inhuman
      if you aren’t. "

      I think that's exactly how someone should feel after watching such a video. Why shouldn't someone be appalled and outraged? If the talking heads prepare them for the video shown, someone should wonder why they don't feel the way that others do.

      Repetition doesn't necessary lead to desensitization. It can also lead to re-traumatization. People who watched the news reports on 9/11 saw the buildings collapse over and over. Finally experts told people to stop watching because they were being made more upset by rewatching it. But the purpose of showing videos over and over is to catch new viewers who have just joined the news show, not to specifically program or manipulate anyone. People rarely watch the news from beginning to end. They drop in at various times during the day, so news shows repeat the news for those joining shows in progress later in the day.

      Complexity is not for news shows that have only a limited amount of time to report all that has happened during a day. The in depth reporting is for other kinds of shows.

      I have not seen anyone present any evidence that audiences are numb or bored or desensitized.

    2. Obvious question: if the evidence is so damning, why do you need to be set up for it? Why do you need to be told what to think?

    3. Do I understand you to say that the public’s reaction to the 9-11 coverage led to a wise and measured response to 9-11? You must really think Rudy is quite the hero and the intervention in Afghanistan was quite successful.

    4. Rudy is a hero to some, let’s see if you can puzzle it out. Rudy brought an end to the dwindling Italian mafia, opening the door and giving away the store to a new group of corrupt folks, ones with more political ambitions than the Italian mafia.

      Furthermore, do I understand you to say that when significant events occur, people should be kept in the dark? Brother, please.

    5. “The talking head tells you to be prepared to
      be appalled and outraged in such a
      fashion that you will feel a little inhuman
      if you aren’t.”

      On the other hand, they do have a duty to warn viewers about graphic, violent, or sexually explicit content before showing a video. It’s standard practice.

      I can’t imagine a reason why you wouldn’t be troubled by 5 cops violently beating up (to the point of him being unrecognizable) a 140 pound man who is clearly incapable of resisting, whose injuries resulted in his death. I haven’t heard any plausible justification for what the cops did here in any subsequent reporting about the event.

      However, your reaction is your own, and need not be dictated by the opinion of the TV talking heads, who are entitled to their own opinions as well.

  7. Race is only “hard” for racists, and those suffering from racial oppression.

    Somerby, sometimes forthrightly, sometimes coyly, continues his “courageous” effort in pronouncing his racism. Here, here!

    The KKK should honor him with a statue.

    To be fair, the opinion piece, as portrayed, seems ignorant; a) turning a blind eye to oppression only leads to fascism, and b) violence has played a vital role in our struggle for freedom from oppression - Gandhi’s salt march, Till’s open casket, all the broadcast beatings withstood during civil rights protests, etc.

  8. It isn't the killing of black people that makes such deaths a national issue, instead of a local tragedy. It is the DISPROPORTIONATE killing that makes black deaths an example of systemic racism, and that is a national issue because this is happening all over the country, not just in the South for example. White deaths are major news in local news markets, because such deaths are often the result of someone being armed and involved in criminal activity by white perpetrators. Occasionally someone who is white and unarmed will be shot due to misunderstandings related to disabilities such as mental illness or deafness or autism.

    If white people would like to argue that ALL police shootings should be prevented and addressed via police reform, that would be fine with me. But black people and their allies are the ones who are concerned about the DISPROPORTIONATE killing of black people by police, and as a group, they have every right to be concerned. It appears to be an aspect of racism and especially institutionalized racism inherent in policing practices.

    It is deeply insulting when Somerby or anyone else suggests that white people are only concerned about such deaths for performative reasons. Equally so when someone suggests that the news media are reporting activism around police reform in order to be performative, to get ratings, or to "normalize" black deaths. What if someone had suggested that the Freedom Riders were only being reported by the news media in order normalize violence against black people trying to exercise civil rights?

    The only way change will occur is if the media focuses a spotlight on the wrongs in our society and equally publicizes the efforts at reform. I believe they have been doing that and only that. There are people in our society who are callous about human suffering. They aren't going to be changed by videos of beatings and deaths, but they aren't going to be changed by anything -- not even shame. They are the ones calling concern by others "performative," because they don't feel anything themselves, so they assume others must be faking too.

    I believe that includes Somerby, based on his ongoing essays about race and how "hard" it is to do the right thing.

  9. You are dealing with human beings with all their base instincts at play...The endless loop is to push the narrative that only black folks are killed, oppressed and kept down by the man whether it is the police, society, ancient history, mathematics, language, physics, classical music or the million other things that "racism" is applied to in hefty doses on a daily basis...Utopia is a myth and fools' errand...

    1. Ok Eeyore, thanks for weighing in; every voice can matter, we hear you…and us adults shall continue our work towards progress, but please, enjoy your pity party

    2. Utopia, ie perfection, is not the point. Doing better is the point. Surely you wouldn’t argue that there aren’t still race-based inequities which harm our society that ought to be addressed.

  10. Micah X. Johnson died for our sins.