We have a human rights crisis in the United States, and people are not paying attention. Wait. Let me rephrase that because there is an important distinction. Us white people are not paying attention.

As I write this, an ambulance wails through my neighborhood in New Orleans and I am reminded that Michael Brown is not just one black man. He is one of millions who have died as the result of racial injustices in this country.

The difference is that Brown’s case removes the subtleties of institutional violence so we see exactly how societal power plays out between two individual characters: “The Man,” or white male policeman, and black male “criminal.” (“Criminal” of course is a role forced upon any black man who happens to be in the area when it needs to be filled. And as happened in this case, evidence will be found to support the label.) So in effect, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson become the physical embodiments of a social order, one that is unjust and unconscionable in its disregard for the lives of black men.

However, many white people do not see or understand the reality of this crisis because it does not directly affect them. They are in low-crime neighborhoods where the sight of a policeman stirs a feeling of safety and comfort instead of antagonism and fear. But for black men between the ages of 15 and 34, homicide is the leading cause of death. Moreover, police are not trusted allies to black men but the enforcers of discriminatory drug policies that target them even while drug use is consistent among all races. Crime, poverty, mass incarceration, diseases and sickness are all conveniently out of the purview of white neighborhoods. In New Orleans, there is a 25-year difference in life expectancy between the predominantly white neighborhood of Lakeview and the historically black neighborhood of Treme. Inequality is not just a matter of money but life itself: who lives and who dies in America.

Of course, this injustice affects all of us. We are all living in a country that lauds ideals and principles of freedom and opportunity to which we do not uphold in practice. We are standing by and allowing lives to be lost. We are ignoring the pain and suffering of a whole population of Americans. In sum, white people are suffering from a crisis of their own: a lack of consciousness. However, these tragedies involving needless death can serve to jolt us from our apathetic slumber. It is time to wake up and decide, “I do not want to live in a country where some lives are less valuable than others.”

Florentina Staigers

social justice attorney and writer

New Orleans