The list of unarmed black bodies left lifeless after an encounter with the police continues to grow. We say their names to keep their memory alive but doing so comes at an emotional cost; a cost we mournfully pay to continue to fight for justice in their honor. These victims share many things in common: They are dead. They are precious. And they are all considered too black to be the perfect victim.
The perfect victim is someone whose mere passing elicits sympathy and compassion from onlookers. Someone whose suffering rallies the masses together in a collective effort for justice. The perfect victim needs no help fighting for their dignity and worth in their plight for justice because society has willingly taken up their cause.
Although freely given to some, this elite status of victim-hood was not and has not been given to any such black victim of police brutality. Encounters with the police are immediately met with suspicion of the victim; even more so when the victim is black. Think about the many ways black victims have been described after their death: Michael Brown was no angel. Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. Eric Garner should not have been selling loose cigarettes. Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend should not have shot back. Emmitt Till shouldn’t have allegedly whistled at that white woman.
Black victims are a part of a community of victims who are still put on trial even after their death. Their past is constantly brought up to justify their loss of life. Their mistakes, their issues, even the crimes they allegedly committed during their encounter with law enforcement are all used against them in an effort to show exactly why they got what they deserve. Black people, in the eyes of the world, are always deserving of the treatment they receive.
Whether looking at slave masters who used God’s Word demonically in an effort to subdue the very bearers of God’s image in slavery, or at scientists who ardently argued that the brains of black folks are smaller than those of white folk, or using the now beloved myth of black on black crime summoned mid-argument by white folks on the ropes in conversations of race, the truth is that there will never be a perfect black victim. There will always be a reason and a justification for their death.
Beyond the blatant racism, what we also miss here is that death is a not friend of any human. According to the Genesis, death was never in the original plan. We being sinful humans selfishly trying to be better than the God who created us rolled out the red carpet for death to enter this world. And Death was our inevitable foe until Jesus Christ landed on the very Earth created through Him. And with his death and resurrection, death was defeated and sin, the medium by which death entered, was conquered. The gates of Hell did not prevail. Death no longer is a foe to fear for those who believe in the work of Jesus; it is instead an mournful entry way into the eternal inheritance waiting for us.
What does this have to do with the myth of the perfect victim? It means that it is indeed a myth because we are all victims where death is concerned. From the stillborn child to the murderer on death row, all are sufferers of the affliction of a fallen world where death is the end. For black people, that means we do not need to live perfect lives to deserve sympathy. We do not need to be considered good citizens at the time of our death to elicit compassion. We simply need to be human; to be image bearers of the God in Heaven, to be deserving of compassion, mercy, and grace.
Which we are.
It also means that believers of the myth of the perfect victim are believing a lie that is founded in the spirit of partiality, a spirit where you arrogantly decide who and what deserves compassion. James says it clearly in the 2nd chapter of his book, verses 8-9: “Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love you neighbor as yourself.’ But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” James is specifically talking about those who favor the rich over the poor but the heart of passage is that loving our neighbor means not showing favoritism to one or withholding good things from those we deem unworthy. And we know from Matthew that loving our neighbor rightly is only possible when we first love God.
So, to be partial with your compassion or stingy with your sympathy is to not of God. To withhold your mourning until you feel it is justified is not the way of Jesus. Black people are your neighbor. We are carriers of dignity, containers of the image of God. And we, like everyone else, deserve your mourning when we mourn. We deserve your compassion when we are killed.
There is no perfect victim; only victims you deem more worthy of your time and energy. But for those who care to have to heart of God, we will pray for hearts that break at what breaks His. We will beg for eyes to see what He sees. We will plead for tears at the things that we should cry over. And we will not withhold the very things God gives freely to all who trust Him: compassion, mercy, and grace.