It’s difficult for me to discuss race, and as a result, I tend to avoid it. The reason it’s difficult is because there’s so much I, as a white person, don’t know… can’t know, about how race functions in our society. When you’re a white person in America, you don’t see how race impacts our society unless you look for it. So there’s a lot that we miss. I also feel as though white people often use discussions of race, particularly with other white people, as a way to assuage white guilt, and relieve the pressure of injustice and privilege. So I try not to do anything quite that masturbatory.
I have been paying a lot of attention to the Michael Dunn trial.
If you haven’t heard about this, Michael Dunn asked an SUV full of black teenagers to turn down their music. And altercation followed, which ended with Mr. Dunn firing ten bullets into the parked car. There was no return fire, and no weapon was found in the SUV. Dunn left the scene without contacting the authorities, and seventeen year old Jordan Davis died. This was the result of an argument that Dunn himself started.
Dunn has been on trial for the killing, depending on the use of justifiable force in self defense for his acquittal> He was convicted of attempted murder for the other young men in the car, but a mistrial was declared regarding the murder charge as the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.
Now, in jail, Dunn has written letters, some of which include blatant racially charged language:
“It’s spooky how racist everyone is up here and how biased toward blacks the courts are. This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs,” he notes. He goes on to say “This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these **** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior…”
The phrase “biased toward blacks,” really caught my eye… when you consider the tremendous racial disparity in stand your ground defenses, it just doesn’t hold water. Also consider Trayvon Martin, pursued and shot while he was on his way back from a snack run; and it really doesn’t make sense when you consider the case of Marissa Alexander, who, while in the midst of being assaulted by her husband, first fired a warning shot into the ceiling before shooting him… she was denied immunity under stand your ground laws.
Defenders of stand your ground type laws will tell you that the laws are intended to protect the “innocent shooter” by allowing them the right to not retreat from a situation in which they feel that their lives are in danger. On the surface, this may seem reasonable. But I want to tell you, I want people who feel that they are in life-threatening situations to flee. I want them to flee not because I want them to be victims, but because fleeing decreases the likelihood of anyone dying. Because the concept of “feeling threatened” is too squishy to allow someone’s life to depend on it. Because we are supposed to be a society that exalts the rule of law over vigilante killings.
If I had killed everyone who had threatened me with a gun (and I haven’t, because I don’t kill people), my personal death toll would be at two at this point in my life. If I had killed everyone who had made me feel threatened, that number would be much, much higher.
I feel threatened if someone is standing too close to me at the ATM. I feel threatened if I am approached at the bus station by a stranger. I feel threatened if someone I don’t know touches me, and I feel threatened if it looks like someone is following me.
Threat is different for everyone. A single woman may experience threat differently than a man, and even differently than a woman of color. We cannot, as a society, allow killings to take place on these subjective grounds. Now it’s true that the mistrial that was declared for the charge of murder in the Michael Dunn case was not based on Stand Your Ground style legislation, but even in cases in which the question is one of reasonable self-defense, we need a better way to determine that. An objective way.
Because white people also feel threat differently. White people tend to be afraid of black people.
This is a pervasive cultural situation in America. It stems from the natural fear that the oppressors feel toward the oppressed; a fear of a loss of privilege, as well as a fear that the oppressed will rise up and visit upon the oppressors the same methods that were a part of the oppression.
It is encouraged by an overwhelmingly negative tone to the black faces in our media. Black men are warlords, drug kingpins, gang soldiers, rapists, thieves and murderers. Black women are overwhelmingly poor and often addicts and prostitutes; when they aren’t blatantly whores, they are often treated as such. The black face in white dominated media is portrayed as thuggish and violent, and for many white people this is the vast majority of their exposure to black faces.
If you want to see the impact that this exposure has on us, and as a result on the black community, you might consider taking the Race IAT at Project Implicit. It measures your positive or negative association with white or black faces, and the results may surprise you. Mine surprised me. I’m willing to admit that my results showed a preference for white faces. This preference doesn’t mean that you’re explicitly racist, but it does measure unconscious attitudes and associations. These attitudes and associations are a result of the culture that we’ve grown up in… in fact, children start developing these associations and attitudes at very young ages, even in infancy.
This is why black neighborhoods are policed differently (more) than are white neighborhoods, and why New York’s stop and frisk policy overwhelmingly impacted people of color more than it did white people. And this in turn is responsible in part for the overwhelming racial disparity in our prisons.
And so, convictions for vigilante killings cannot be based on such things as feelings of threat, since this is going to unfairly impact people of color. They also can’t be based on feelings of threat because threatening someone is not a capital offense (even if you believe in the death penalty, which I don’t).
So when Michael Dunn claims that, in the course of an altercation that he started with a black teenager about his “thug music,” he felt threatened… well, I’m sorry that he felt threatened, but now a kid is dead. A kid who worked a job, and who was described by his teachers as an advanced student, and who will never join the military as he aspired to. He was killed, at the root of it all, because he was a young black male. And that breaks my heart.