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This is ‘This is America,’ by the numbers

Donald Glover is right: Gun violence is scraping years off of our life expectancy.

Donald Glover as Childish Gambino in This is America. Photo Credit: YouTube Screen Capture
Donald Glover as Childish Gambino in This is America. Photo Credit: YouTube Screen Capture

Donald Glover’s timing is impeccable. Days after he dropped his new single, “This is America,” the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health released a new study on the years of life lost due to police violence. These new details tell an old story — the same story Glover tells in the surreal, satirical music video released in conjunction with the song.

In the video directed by his “Atlanta” collaborator Hiro Murai, Glover — performing as his rap persona Childish Gambino — depicts a gray chaotic world, set in a bare industrial environment, which is plagued by gun violence, death, and the destruction of black bodies. Within the first minute Glover, after contorting his body as if partly choreographed and partly possessed (perhaps by past iterations of black identity through the white gaze), pulls a gun from his waistband and shoots a man. Seconds later, Glover, on the upbeat, raps, “this is America.”

And he’s right.

Last fall, it was reported by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation that the United States ranked 31st on the list of countries with the highest rates of gun violence. According to Everytown, 96 Americans are killed by a firearm every day. An American is 25 times more likely to die by a gun than any other advanced nation.

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Looking deeper, as Glover’s video forces you to do, gun violence affects people of color — and black communities specifically — at higher, disproportionate rates. Similarly, Everytown notes that while Black Americans make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, they are the victims of more than half of all gun homicides.

Throughout the video, Glover dances past groups of rioters, as well as police officers and their vehicles. It’s an apt reminder that the gun control conversation should not exclude police brutality. The aforementioned study, released Monday by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, focuses on the number of years of life lost (YLL) due to police violence — ultimately finding that the numbers, across the board, were significant.

In the years 2015 and 2016, the study reports, 1,146 and 1,092 people, respectively were killed by police officers. Of those populations, 52 percent were white, 26 percent were black, and 17 percent were Hispanic. While the number of white people killed by police is greater in number due to their population size, the study showed that the rate was the highest for black people. As the study’s abstract notes:

There were 57,375 and 54,754 YLLs due to police violence in 2015 and 2016, respectively. People of colour comprised 38.5% of the population, but 51.5% of YLLs. YLLs were greatest among those aged 25–34 years, and the number of YLLs at younger ages was greater among people of colour than whites.

The researchers continue:

Police violence disproportionately impacts young people, and the young people affected are disproportionately people of colour. These findings are consistent with YLL age patterns for violence more broadly. Framing police violence as an important cause of deaths among young adults (which implicitly also means people of colour) provides another valuable lens to motivate prevention efforts.

For much of the video, Childish Gambino is joined by a group of black school children, dancing together amid the violent chaos depicted. The children symbolize the extent to which the American school experience has been tarnished by the prevalence of gun violence. The Washington Post found that Hispanic children are twice as likely and black students are three times as likely to experience gun violence in school than any other group.

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After the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people killed and a dozen others injured, the push for gun control surged back into the spotlight. Student survivors took control and created a movement that brought them all the way to Washington with March For Our Lives. In the wake of this rising teen-driven activism it felt as though the needle was finally moving, if only slightly.

There was increased talk about intensifying the background check process, raising the age limit, and limiting the types of guns that could be sold. And corporate support for the NRA took a big hit after Parkland.

Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, signed a $400 million dollar bill which — while failing to ban assault weapons outright — raised the buying age from 18 to 21, banned bump stocks, put in place a “red flag” law, and extended the mandatory waiting period for handgun purchasers to include long guns as well.

The US Department of Justice also moved to ban bump stocks in the wake of Parkland. Vermont and Rhode Island added their names to the list of states with “red flag” legislation. And just days after the March for our Lives, the state Assembly of New Jersey voted to pass six bills that strengthened that state’s already relatively strict gun laws.

The conversation around gun violence also became intersectional, with Parkland survivors reaching out to vulnerable communities and sharing their platform.

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Despite this progress, the music video for “This Is America” avoids a rosy view. As Gambino and his school children companions jive through myriad displays of wild chaos, they dance with a gleeful nonchalance, as if blind to the different groups of black people responding to the violence around them. It’s as if they don’t even notice all the melee. Or worse, that they’ve become used to it.

This all just points to the fact that the fight for sensible gun laws has truly only just begun. Since the debut of Gambino’s video on Saturday, there have been at least 22 reported fatal shootings across the country.