If you watched any part of the recent 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon, you might think you know the answer. The classic holiday film features a white boy named Ralphie who desperately wants to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle under the Christmas tree. Much to his dismay, everyone with whom he shares this heartfelt wish (his mother, his teacher, even a department store Santa) rejects the toy as too dangerous. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they proclaim.
But the story of Tamir Rice tells us that the “worst thing” that can happen, actually, is being mistaken for a criminal who is brandishing a real gun, and being killed by police who shoot first and ask questions later.
Last week, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to press charges against the officer who shot and killed Tamir. Timothy J. McGinty, the prosecutor in the case, said the boy’s death was “horrible, unfortunate, and regrettable. But it was not, by the laws that bind us, a crime.”
Perhaps McGinty’s statement is actually the “worst thing,” for it did nothing to assure parents that any black boy playing with any toy gun couldn’t reasonably expect the same fatal outcome. He reported that the officer who shot Tamir had reason to fear for his life, implying that the fatal shooting was merely an unfortunate consequence of Tamir’s own actions. Actions identical to those of Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Each boy was playing with a toy.
Several recent news reports confirm that the worst consequence for any particular behavior may depend upon the skin color of the one doing the behaving.
Sandra Bland (African American) allegedly changed lanes without signaling, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. She was arrested and jailed, then mysteriously ended up dead in her cell. The officers involved claim she killed herself, but her family doesn’t believe it. A grand jury declined to indict anyone.
Eric Garner (African American) allegedly sold individual cigarettes on the street, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. A video recording clearly shows him being choked to death by a police officer and his death was ruled a homicide. Again, a grand jury declined to indict anyone.
Meanwhile, a white male named Ethan Couch drove drunk and killed four people, then pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner never went to court or entered pleas – they didn’t live long enough to do so). But Ethan was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time. Now that he’s been apprehended for apparently violating probation, maybe he’ll face real consequences. He will probably survive.
These news snippets are selective, but they highlight a painful truth that is undeniable to all but the most blind. While America has spent the last century desegregating our institutions, giving all Americans access to the same rights and privileges, the criminal justice system is a stubborn holdout and still has a long way to go. As long as it’s not working for each and every one of us, it’s not working at all.
With that in mind, what’s the worst that can happen when a boy plays with a toy gun? For now, unfortunately, that depends on the color of the boy’s skin. America can celebrate progress when a boy like Tamir wants to play with such a toy, and his mother’s only warning is “You’ll shoot your eye out!”