The death of Gabby Petito captured much of the nation's...

The death of Gabby Petito captured much of the nation's attention because she was a young suburban woman on a road trip out West. Credit: Nomadic Statik via YouTube

A highly-publicized tragedy suffered by a Long Island family in recent weeks inadvertently touched a wound long felt by Black Americans.

Why, many African Americans ask, is more attention so often given to white crime victims than to crime victims of color?

The implication is that Black lives don't matter as much as white lives in the eyes of many Americans. Indeed, the question gave rise to a movement. Is there truth to it?

It's a fair question, and one that makes me a tiny bit uncomfortable because, if I'm to be completely honest, I instinctively differentiate crimes in my mind based on where they occur. I wish I didn't, but I do.

If I encounter a newspaper headline about a murder in a leafy suburban village, I read on. It strikes me as news because it's rare. If I see a headline about an inner-city shooting, I'm more likely to flip the page, not because I don't care, and not because of the race of the victim, but because it doesn't appear to me as news. Therein lies a tragedy. There are too many homicides in largely Black communities, and many of us have become inured to them.

The death of Gabby Petito captured much of the nation's attention because she was a young suburban woman on a road trip out West. A highway accident would have been tragic, but it wouldn't have garnered much news coverage. But a homicide with a fleeing boyfriend?

There have been so many mysterious elements to Petito's story that it's hard to stop reading about it. Her parents' heartbreaking pleas for help, coupled with self-shot videos of Petito, made millions of us feel like we lost someone we've come to know. We opened our hearts to her story, and it hurts.

Does it hurt more for those of us who share Petito’s racial and socioeconomic demographic? Is that why we're so interested, at least partially? It's possible, but I'm not sure there's anything sinister in that. Feeling for strangers who look most like us may be a natural thing, though it's not something many would care to admit. Yet when we know the victim — really know the victim on a personal level — race and geography are immaterial. Grief knows no boundaries.

That said, it feels like a cop out to pin what stories we pay attention to wholly on where they occur and on the demographic of the victim, as much as that may make sense. The U.S. population is still predominantly non-Hispanic white — 57.8% of the population as of 2020 — while African Americans constitute 13.4%. Could that simple fact account for why so many white Americans gloss over Black crime victim stories? I wouldn't buy that if I were Black. I'd feel that people don't value my children's lives because of their race. That must be painful. Profoundly so.

This conversation is not new in America. It's a subject that comes up time and again, and it should. In a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, we should strive to value one another's lives equitably.

But in everyday life it’s tough. We develop prejudices about crime in minority communities without even knowing it. We’ve come to expect it — I’ve come to expect it — and in doing so we lose sight of the victims.

All we can do, I suppose, is willfully open our eyes, and our hearts, a little wider.

Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months