Right now, there are far more questions than answers about the September 6 shooting at an apartment complex in Dallas, Texas. What little we do know is unquestionably tragic -- heartbreaking.
It is also beyond dispute that a white officer killed an unarmed black man. Yet we do not yet know nearly enough to conclude or speculate, as a flood of news stories and tweets do, that this shooting was motivated by racial profiling. None of us yet knows if the evidence in this shooting will dictate that we add it to the obscene toll racial profiling takes in America. In many ways, it almost doesn't matter, because the trust that should exist between police officers, white or black, and the communities of color they serve is diminished or entirely absent.
The facts as we know them so far: Resident Alyssa Kinsey told CNN she was on the phone Thursday night when she heard a shot followed by what sounded like "running steps" and a woman's voice calling the police. She soon learned that her next-door neighbor, Botham Shem Jean, had been fatally shot.
"He was great, as a neighbor," Kinsey said, "quiet, friendly, super chill. ... We would chat about life, smiling and laughing. He had a huge smile." A 26-year-old black man, born and raised in Saint Lucia, Jean had moved to the apartment in April. His LinkedIn profile identifies him as a "Risk Assurance Experienced Associate" at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), and he described himself as "striving towards leadership in my career, my community and society."
We also know that the person who shot him is a white woman, a four-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department assigned to the Southeast Patrol Division. Dallas Police Chief Ulysha Renee Hall told reporters on Monday that 30-year-old Amber Guyger "returned to what she believed to be her apartment after her shift ended." But it was, in fact, Jean's apartment. According to Alyssa Kinsey, the apartment doors at the complex are all similar, but Jean's doorstep had a bright red mat.
Officer Guyger, who has now been charged with manslaughter, "encountered Mr. Jean inside the apartment," Chief Hall told reporters, adding that "at some point she fired her weapon striking the victim." Guyger next called 911, and officers "responded in about four minutes."
We know that Botham Shem Jean was shot in his own apartment, but we do not yet know enough to conclude that he was shot because he was a black man in his own apartment. Yet many of the tweets and the news stories draw the same premature conclusion about the motive behind this young black man's death. Those weighing in so prematurely should take a lesson from Chief Hall, who sought to avoid unfounded conclusions as well as even a hint of bias by turning the investigation over to an outside agency, the Texas Rangers.
But Hall is a professional and the public is the public. There may not be much hard information on this shooting, but many Americans have a memory of all too many unarmed young black men shot by white officers. As one of the attorneys the Jean family has hired, Benjamin Crump, told the press, "We're still dealing in America with black people being killed in some of the most arbitrary ways, driving while black, walking while black and now we have to add livinig while black."
Is Crump, like so many others, jumping to a conclusion?
Maybe. But in today's America, it is a tragically understandable one. If this were a movie, we'd complain that it was nothing but a variation on the same old terrible plot: driving while black, walking while black, living while black.
But it is not a movie. No, we don't yet know enough to say that this shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer had anything to do with the race of either the victim or the shooter. But we know so very much about recent history, about so many recent shootings linked to racial profiling, that the conclusion -- right or wrong in the case of Botham Shem Jean -- is right there waiting to be jumped to.
Americans have learned to assume that racial profiling pulls the trigger whenever an officer -- white or black -- shoots a person of color. The sooner police agencies are able to credibly persuade the public, especially in minority communities, to change their assumptions, the sooner we can begin to rebuild the trust the police and the people so urgently need.
In the meantime, whatever we learn about the death of Botham Shem Jean, one essential truth will remain: a life, young and promising and loved, was lost.
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