She was 22 years old. Bright, engaging, energetic and caring. He was 17. Intelligent, diligent, personable and athletic.
Eve Carson, as most of us know, was the student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her all-too-brief stint on this earth was filled with impressive accomplishments. She was a pre-med student, finishing up a double undergrad major in political science and biology. She gave of herself, volunteering in multiple capacities, both at home and abroad. Eve was, by all accounts, immensely popular at school, and yet described as humble and gracious by those who knew her closely as well as those who'd met her only in passing.
Jamiel Shaw Jr. was a good kid in a tough town, a star athlete and hero to his classmates at Los Angeles High. As he neared completion of his junior year, fresh from being named to the All-City team in football, he had performed well enough athletically and academically to receive inquiries from Stanford and Rutgers universities. He aspired to use football to get into college, where he would pursue a career in sports marketing.
Carson was shot in the head Wednesday, March 5, the victim of an apparently random carjacking. In exchange for her blue 2005 Toyota Highlander and wallet, the flame of Carson's considerable potential was extinguished.
Shaw was shot in the head and back Sunday, March 2, by gang members while walking home from the local mall and talking on his cell phone with his girlfriend. She heard the last words that he would hear, "Where you from?" a familiar challenge in L.A., meant to elicit a person's gang affiliation. One of Shaw's other notable accomplishments, surviving 17 and a half years without joining a gang, was deemed inconsequential and irrelevant to the young men who halted his promise in a hail of gunfire, scant yards from his home.
There is a grim symmetry to these tragedies, occurring on opposite sides of the country, and only three days apart. "Senseless" no longer does these situations justice. I mean, does anything make sense anymore? Still, the callous, execution-style dispatch of anyone, let alone two people so brimming with potential, cheats our society. That they had achieved so much and were on the verge of more endowed both cases a notoriety far above the other people murdered in this country—more than 17,000 in 2006, according to the FBI. In both cases, the murder suspects were on the street after probation violations or other brushes with the law, for which they should have been locked up.
We get a glimpse, however, at where these stories of stolen lives diverge when listening to the words of these kids' respective fathers, in the aftermath of their loss.
Carson's father said of her, in a prepared statement read at her funeral in Georgia, "Every parent knows how special their child can be. We know from our own lives that growth and growing up are best continued over a lifetime. But there seems to be a moment early on when a parent can look at their child and know they've got the building blocks and the character for a good life."
For him, there was every expectation of great things for his daughter, and no doubt that her character and abilities would be rewarded in this world with that "good life."
Shaw's father also saw potential and hope, in and for his child. Missing, however, was that level of optimism that I daresay most of our nation's citizens take for granted. In the aftermath of his son's murder, Jamiel Shaw Sr. said he had an "18-year plan" for his son, as reported in the Los Angeles Times: "I would tell him, 'I'm going to get you to 18, and if you do what you're supposed to do, you'll get to college.' He was almost there."
Reading that took the wind out of me. As a black parent, the subtext of Shaw's statements is as plain as it is painful. He knew that raising a son in L.A. was dangerous and uncertain work. The fear was so palpable he thought ensuring that his son survived until he was 18 (and could get away, escaping via college) would require a concrete plan. His reactions to the endemic violence were so second nature that he called his son's cell phone, to warn him about the gunshots that he'd heard in the neighborhood. Gunshots that, it turns out, were the very ones that took Jamiel Shaw Jr.'s life.
Around half of murder victims in the United States are black. These victims are about 90 percent likely to be killed by another black person—although Jamiel Shaw Jr. was killed by Latino gang members, and there is considerable debate now in L.A. concerning whether Latino gangs are intentionally targeting blacks, regardless of affiliation, as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. Eighty-three percent of white homicide victims are killed by other whites, although in Eve Carson's case, the suspects are black. Almost 80 percent of black on black murders are committed with handguns, and half of African-American homicide victims are young males between the ages of 17-29.
I have six children, three of them sons. These statistics are not lost on me. Where I live is by no means as blighted and deadly as Los Angeles, so I don't feel the same need to have an "18-year plan," but I know that neighborhood, income and even conduct do not make one immune to the ways of this world. For my kids, especially my sons, I have many concerns. I don't want them to meet the grim fate that far too many of their peers have met, so I have to raise them to be circumspect, yet not fearful. I have to do my best to fill them with respect, morals and character, so that they don't become the type of people who value their own lives so lowly that they wouldn't give a second thought to taking someone else's. I have to prepare them for the fact that they likely will be looked at by society as suspects, and give them the tools to deal with that reality without becoming bitter or defeated. And lastly, I have to be involved in my community and beyond, so that these same messages are transmitted to their peers.
I suppose there is a line we cross, at which point there are so many murders that they must be discussed abstractly, in percentages. You know that a piece of your humanity is being siphoned when your mind no longer challenges the premise of stories about how murders have increased by 11 percent over the same period of last year—as if last year's number was acceptable.
What, ultimately, do we make of Eve and Jamiel's stories? Their deaths highlight and obscure. They have the potential to bring the brokenness of our society into sharp focus. But if we look too closely at these as individual cases, allowing them to fill, then obscure, our field of view, we will miss the many other victims. Understanding the fickle nature of media coverage and public interest, we should use these moments of undivided attention, without being exploitative, to ensure that we talk about the larger problems every time.
There is something fundamentally wrong, of course, with a society in which an Eve Carson or a Jamiel Shaw Jr. can be so summarily cut down. There is also something deeply flawed in our social structure when, for many people, devising a plan to ensure that your child isn't murdered is considered pragmatic.
Perhaps the approach of the L.A. Times, with its homicide blog, which gives a face and back story to all of these victims, will allow us to grow beyond exceptionalism. And if we, as a society, begin taking all murders seriously, maybe then we will discover the national will to do something to change, for the better, for Eves, for Jamiels, and for all of us.