On Tuesday, footage surfaced online of four black teenagers beating and berating a white male teenager who had been bound and gagged. The 30-minute-long video was streamed live via the Facebook account of one of the assailants. Voices can be heard throughout yelling, "Fuck white people!" and "Fuck Donald Trump!"
It should go without saying that this crime was horrific. Reports describing the young white man — who attended school with one of his attackers and suffers from "mental health challenges," according to police — as he wandered the streets of Chicago after being set free are agonizing to read.
But it's also clear that countless white Americans will draw the wrong conclusion from this incident. Many see the boy's kidnapping as justification for the view that black people are inherently criminal and black protest is an existential threat to society.
On Wednesday evening, the day after the Facebook Live video went public, #BLMKidnapping started trending on Twitter among mostly white commentators. There was no evidence that activists involved with the Movement for Black Lives — a coalition of black civil rights organizations that includes Black Lives Matter — were involved in the incident, nor did the assailants mention BLM or indicate they were affiliated with the movement in any way.
White opponents and their allies have been calling Black Lives Matter terrorists since the group's inception, but the speed with which this incident has been used to dismiss the concerns of civil rights activists follows a familiar pattern. Historically, whites have justified racism by pointing to unrelated violence and misbehavior committed by black people. The underlying logic is clear: In order to deserve equality in the eyes of whites, black people must essentially be perfect.
This standard is apparent at least as far back as slavery. When the question of emancipation arose, pro-slavery whites pointed to blacks' inherent inferiority — using racial pseudoscience to show that black slaves who wanted freedom were mentally ill, for example — in order to justify their continued enslavement. When Reconstruction was underway, blacks were recast as criminals, rapists and usurpers of white power, a view lionized in movies like D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Notions of the innate danger black people pose have since been used to justify lynchings, mass incarceration and vigilante killings. Trayvon Martin's life became disposable in part because he smoked marijuana. Mike Brown's life became disposable because he was "no angel."
The most glaring iteration of this idea today is the discussion over what conservative commentators call "black on black crime." On repeated occasions, when Black Lives Matter demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest police killings of black people, pundits like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have appeared on TV to deflect attention toward black intraracial violence.
"What we've got to hear from [black people] is how and what they are doing among themselves about the crime problem in the black community," rather than focusing so much on police violence, Giuliani said in a July 2016 interview on CBS' Face the Nation.
This logic demands that black people demonstrate their own worth before being treated as equals before the law. They must be paragons of impeccable behavior — beyond reproach in word, deed and association. It is a standard that is not applied to white people, who kill other whites at similar rates. Their value is assumed to be inherent.
This standard explains why four black youth out of millions can commit a horrific crime against a white peer and, within hours, the very notion of black civil rights is on trial. It suggests white supremacy will find a way to justify black inequality as long as any black American makes mistakes.