By Ellie Bolender
On July 16, Kansas City, KS police officer, Captain Robert Melton was shot and killed when he responded to a reported drive-by shooting (Kansas). Some hours later, a white Kansas resident visiting Casper stopped for fuel at Sam’s Club, where a white store employee wearing an NRA ball cap struck up a conversation with the Kansas man upon seeing his license plates. He remarked, “I’m going to go get some rope.” At the confused expression on the Kansas man’s face, the employee continued, “You know, to go take care of those bastards that are killing our cops.”
This Casper man was proposing a lynching. If you’re in doubt, consider that shootings of police have flooded the news cycle for the last several weeks. The narrative of this news cycle often encourages the public to blame African Americans and/or members of the Black Lives Matter movement for the deaths of these brave men. Social media has become inundated with slogans like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” Of course they do, but these parodies want to persuade us all that we are playing a zero-sum game, and the deaths of police officers are always a black man’s fault in some way or another. This is the climate in which the Sam’s Club employee made his comment about rope and “taking care of those bastards.” And if you’re still in doubt regarding whether his remark was motivated by more than a desire to support law enforcement, consider the rope.
Though the definition of lynching does not dictate the use of rope in hanging the victim. Hanging is, however, the technology most associated with the longstanding tradition of lynching in America. Some accounts of lynching between 1865 and 1920 account the number of African Americans being hanged at around 3,500 (Miller 1). But it’s the 21st century now, and things are different, right? It’s true that lynching is a rare thing now, at least with ropes. We now have technologies that make Jim Crow and roeps obsolete, but do nothing or worse than nothing to repair the systemic racism that too frequently manifests in violence.
Despite his apparent affinity with the gun lobby, this Sam’s Club employee makes a statement suggesting a backward shift in technology, from gun to rope as a means of killing, in addition to a backward shift in ideology, from acceptance to violent intolerance. If we accept this paradigm, we align ourselves with the notion that technology progresses as social thought does, that technology and humanity walk forward, hand in hand. As a society, we are advancing technologically and sociologically, becoming more advanced in our ideas about American culture and more able to use technology to assist our collective enlightenment.
But it isn’t true. After all, a black man can be lynched just as easily with a gun as with a rope. We have to stop treating technology as a cure-all, as if we can end all of our collective problems by curing heart disease, winning wars, and playing Pokemon GO. In a keynote address presented at a conference for educational technology, Dr. Ruha Benjamin reminded us all that when technology makes things “better” for us, there’s usually someone for whom it makes things worse.
We don’t have to wait for the machines to become self-aware to take over and drive our species into oblivion. It is already happening in small ways across the globe because our deprioritization of the humanities is allowing the desires of some to disregard the oppression of others. It has to begin to matter to everyone that the victims of this oppression are people who may not look or speak like us. Dr. Benjamin cites the Marshall Islands, a nuclear testing site in the 1950s, where native islanders have been forced to relocate from the island of Kwajalein to Ebeye to make room for a US Army installation. “The health of [the] Marshallese suffer[s] dramatically, both from the direct fallout of nuclear testing but also because of the deeply unequal social and economic conditions of their present lives—which explains the high rates of chronic and infectious diseases including a TB rate that’s 23 times that of the United States” (Benjamin). The technology that has promoted America’s economic and scientific supremacy has been obtained at a great cost, but because that cost is of social and not financial significance, the impetus to remedy these tragedies is unenthusiastic at best.
Benjamin uses this example to demonstrate the serious problem with allowing technology to advance without first addressing our human, sociological problems. Not only are we allowing ourselves to turn a blind eye to injustices that do not appear to directly affect the comfort and pocketbooks of white men, but in doing nothing to promote the importance of social sciences, we permit prejudice and privilege to perpetuate and self-replicate with every new technology that emerges. Dr. Benjamin cites the role of black women in video games, "The majority of African American female characters--a full 86%--are either props, bystanders, or participants, but never competitors... Nearly 9 out of 10 African American females are victims of violence in these games, making them far more likely than other groups to be victimized. And more than HALF of the African American characters, male and female, are quote “unaffected” by the violence exacted upon them... with only a fraction exhibiting both pain and physical harm.
This is a truly startling depiction of black women being treated by technological media as, at best, bystanders, and at worst, subhuman targets for the avatars of young people.
So what if we change the way we conceptualize technology? The world of antebellum slavery may have been different if, instead of investing in the cotton gin, we had invested in the fully mechanized harvesting technique that was invented too late to make slavery unnecessary and unprofitable. That, and many other moments have passed, but we still have ample opportunities to attempt greater equality for this and future generations… if we allow ourselves to see them. But maybe we could start here: What if we encouraged Hollywood to feature men and women of color in movies that aren’t in the action genre, and video game companies to look beyond the stereotypes that have been perpetuated by their own products? What if we promoted STEM programs that encourage children of color to consider careers in science and technology? What if we rewrote algorithms to reflect diversity rather than the preconceived ideas held by their programmers? What if, instead of trading in our ropes for guns, we found a way to protect police and the innocent black lives that our society has allowed them to be pitted against? What if we devoted time, thought, and financial resources to solving problems of oppression instead of allowing the shiny lights of the newest, most “exciting” technologies to distract us from the more humane mission of promoting true, cultural representation?
"Kansas Police Officer Shot and Killed Responding to Shooting Report." Fox News. FOX News Network, 19 July 2016. Web. 19 July 2016.
Miller, Randall M. "Lynching in America: Some Context and a Few Comments." Pennsylvania History 72.3 (2005): 275-91. Web.