Friday, December 14, 2007

LA Times Homicide Report: Race and the Situated Specificity of Death

The Los Angeles Times blog Homicide Report, by Jill Leovy, documents homicides in Los Angeles with brief accounts of the victim, the murder, and, where applicable, the investigation. A couple of the entries struck me:

“Adam Blount, 28, a black man, was shot and killed Thursday night, Dec. 6, at about 11 p.m. in the 1600 block of W. 36th Street. west of Normandie Avenue in South L.A. He had just left the recreation center at Denker park and was walking to his home, which is near the murder scene. His assailants caught up with him as he walked on the sidewalk. There was gunfire, and Blount was taken to California Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was single, and had no children. When detectives arrived at the murder scene, no one was around, and it had begun to rain.”

“Jeffrey Sinclair, 17, a black youth, was shot multiple times at 825 W. 54th Street in LAPD's 77th Street Division at about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20. He was taken to California Hospital, where he died at 9:45 p.m. His mother was incarcerated; he lived with his grandparents. He had been on his bicycle just before he was attacked. The bicycle fell near him at the homicide scene.”

These reports are unusual and poignant because of the specificity they give to the circumstances of the murder, and the victim. When the police arrived to find the body of a black man, who they would learn was named Adam Blount, it began to rain. Jeffrey Sinclair, the black son of an incarcerated mother, was found dead beside his bicycle. The reports begin with general facts that situate the murder, and then descend into particularities, ending with a detail that grounds the account in the unique then-and-there of the crime scene.

This situated account of death is an admirable and compelling way to appreciate the weight and significance of isolated human events in a large nation where powerful and pervasive forces are at play. Martin Heidegger would counsel us that death is special for the way it separates us from commitments to other thing and people. The situated account, on the contrary, posits that death is unique in that it places us, forever, in a circumstance that is entirely our own, while at the same time connecting that circumstance to the structures, identities, and histories that brought it about.

Race is at the forefront of this context. As you read down the entries of the blog, almost all victims are black or latino. Each of these deaths is therefore unique and tragic, but at the same time representative of the social reality of race. If Leovy merely described a boy dead beside his bicycle, or officers arriving as the rain fell, the death would appear tragic and senseless, but it would appear innocent of political or social causes. On the other hand, if we merely list the statistics of racial disparity in homicide rates, we are confronted with only a mass of color coded data unrelated to particular violations of human worth, which entail moral and political responsibilities. In combining facts about race and racial disparity with the radically specific and human circumstances of death, Leovy’s Homicide report makes an important contribution to a discourse about criminal justice that refuses to be colorblind. Leovy herself aptly described the need for a racially sensitive account in her post: "Why does the Report talk about race?"

“The Homicide Report recognizes the peril of dehumanizing victims by reducing their lives and deaths to a few scant facts--particularly racial designations which provide only the roughest markers of ancestry and history. But given the magnitude of difference in homicide risk along racial and ethnic lines--and the extremity of suffering which homicide inflicts on subsets of the population--we opt here to present information which lays bare racial and ethnic contours of the problem so conspicuous in the coroner's data. The goal is to promote understanding, and honor a basic journalistic principle: Tell the truth about who suffers.”

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