“It is very hard to see how this could not be murder. The fact that the jury could not even manage to find him guilty of manslaughter speaks volumes,” wrote civil rights attorney and activist Michelle Alexander on her Facebook page after a Florida jury failed to convict Michael Dunn, who is white, of murdering unarmed black teenager Jordan Davis after an argument in a parking lot over what Dunn had called “thug music.” “Just imagine if the races of the people in this scenario were reversed.”
The truth is, it’s very unlikely that the races in this kind of scenario would ever be reversed. Dunn had encountered Jordan Davis and his friends in November 2012 and got into what turned into a fatal dispute after he demanded they shut off their rap music. It’s impossible for me to imagine that in real life, any black person would roll up on a group of white teens blasting Linkin Park or Justin Bieber, then become so puffed-up with self-entitlement and proprietary outrage over the fact it was being played in their vicinity that they feel a duty to demand it be turned off. That’s because there was another dynamic at play that had little to do with the quality or volume of the music. Michael Dunn had described the kids’ music to his fiancée as “thug music.”
After being called “thug” for giving a fiery interview on live television upon making a play that got his team into the Superbowl, NFL star cornerback and Stanford alum Richard Sherman succinctly observed the word “thug” has become the stand-in for the n-word. He’s right. Michael Dunn did not see a car full of high schoolers playing loud music, as teenagers typically do, who had all the vigor, joy and potential of youth upon them. He didn’t see a bunch of young kids with parents at home waiting for them. He saw “thugs.” Aside from the racial overtones, the word “thug” carries the assumption of criminality with it.
Dunn, who never called 9-1-1 and continued to shoot at the Dodge Durango carrying Jordan Davis even as it drove away, claimed self-defense. Just like George Zimmerman did after stalking the footsteps of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and shooting him to death and Theodore Wafer did after shooting a disoriented, unarmed Renisha McBride to death through the screen of his front door. And while the jury convicted Dunn of lesser attempted murder charges for shooting at the car, they did not convict him of murdering Jordan who was in the same car and hit by the same “attempted murder” bullets.
This may seem inexplicable, absent the context and history of race in the U.S. At the center of that history lies the contiguous assumption that whites are the only true humans and everyone else is a savage out to kill, rape and rob them of their property. This belief has, ironically, resulted in absolutely savage, sadistic cruelty at the hands of whites upon any given group – American Indians, blacks, now Muslims. But the underlying theme is perceived self-defense that is actually murderous aggression. America’s history and present are littered with thousands upon thousands of innocent and defenseless lives, taken in the name of self-defense.
When it comes down to race in the United States, we take a page from Orwell’s “1984” and call white aggression self-defense. This makes life for blacks in this country perilous, but it is obliquely permitted and continues because the criminal justice system plays the same game. It’s as though there’s a silent understanding that convicting whites for murdering blacks and calling it self-defense would dissolve the racial hierarchy in this country.
This country is trying to have it both ways. We want the world to see us as a country of equal opportunity so we present a face of multiculturalism to it. American propaganda says the days of Jim Crow are over and every individual has the ability to pursue all the privileges promised by the “American Dream” but simultaneously the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population. Thanks to racial profiling and the War on Drugs, black men are more than six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. The gross disproportionality of imprisonment and subsequent forced prison labor, loss of voting rights and inability to find work after serving sentences prompted Michelle Alexander to characterize the scenario as “The New Jim Crow.” A survey of media reports found a black man was killed every 28 hours by police, vigilantes or security guards in 2012.
But the perils of existence due to racism couldn’t persist if it weren’t silently permitted by white compatriots. The fact is while American whites are taught in school that racism ended with the Civil Rights era, they unconsciously consume all manner of media that portray blacks as less human and more criminal. Most live in virtual segregation — white neighborhoods, white schools, white workplaces. Legislated segregation may have been outlawed but its de facto presence is on the rise. A 2011 study by Harvard researcher Jason Silverstein found whites cannot empathize with blacks, which impacts everything from adequate prescription of pain medication to criminal sentencing.
The seeds people were trying to pretend weren’t there are sprouting. A racist system is a predatory system, and functions by flipping the script — making killers out to be victims and victims out to be more dangerous than the people that stalk and murder them. Michelle Alexander is right. There’s no way a jury would have trouble convicting a black man for murdering an unarmed white teenager. But convicting Michael Dunn, George Zimmerman and others like them, even though signs indicate they are volatile and violent by nature, would rock the foundation of the status quo in this country. Every system of inequality needs a scapegoat group or groups, and this is achieved by creating assumptions among the privileged group or groups. When the privileged group is asked to make public judgments about interactions like the one that happened between Dunn and Davis, the house of cards comes falling down.
Bethania Palma Markus in a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.