Politics

02.19.14

Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and America's Racist Heritage

Three jurors believed that Michael Dunn was right to fear Jordan Davis and his friends. Here’s what that means.

My suspicion, when I heard the verdict in the Michael Dunn trial—after the jury asked the judge if they could convict on a lesser charge—was that there was a single, recalcitrant juror who thought Dunn was justified. The jury could agree that Dunn had attempted murder, but couldn’t settle the question of whether he murdered.

Someone, I figured, was either convinced of Dunn’s fear, or thought he offered a credible account—Davis might have had a gun, and might have tossed it after driving away. And if we’re being honest, it wouldn’t be the first time someone was convinced of the potential criminality of a black victim.

Well, I was wrong. There were three jurors who thought Dunn had “reasonable belief” to fear for his life. They, according to one juror, who spoke to Nightline, believed Dunn had no recourse but to shoot.

It’s tough to know what do with this. On one hand, we know nothing about these jurors, and it would be wrong to tar them with the brush of racial animus. On the other, however, we can’t pretend the jurors are—in any trial—neutral, disinterested arbiters of the truth. It is a fact of American life that blacks are feared. Too many white Americans fear black cities, black neighborhoods, black people, and—most of all—black crime. If we have a national bogeyman, it’s the black “thug,” who robs homes, sells drugs, “wilds” on the street, and spreads mayhem (like the “knockout game”).

This is embedded in the American psyche. It’s expressed in our books, our movies, our video games, and our politics. It shapes our sense of threat and danger. For Michael Dunn, this was conscious—he was vocal about his views. To him, young black men are thugs, plain and simple. And if you can’t avoid them, then you should at least teach them a lesson.

I don’t know the three jurors. I doubt I ever will. But if you look at what we know about America’s relationship to its black citizens, then it’s not hard to imagine that, for those jurors, the sympathy they felt was a function of their fear, of their ability to imagine the “terror” of facing four young black men, of their willingness to believe in the shotgun of Dunn’s imagination.

I can already imagine the questions. “What did you expect the jury to do?” To do its job, of course. At the same time, the jury is a historically contingent group working in a historically contingent system. For as much as we’d like to believe otherwise—hence the disappointment over the ruling—the institutionalized impartiality of our courtrooms isn’t equipped to deal with the fallout of our long, national romance with white supremacy. Not the least because, in so many ways, it was shaped by it.

“Under Florida self-defense laws,” notes the New York Times, “people can use lethal force and do not have to retreat if they ‘reasonably believe’ it is “necessary” to save their lives or avoid great harm. The jury must, in essence, decide what a ‘reasonable person’ would have done under similar circumstances.” Here’s more:

“The law takes the position that you have to step into the shoes of the defendant,” said Michael Band, a Miami criminal defense lawyer who was a longtime prosecutor in the city.

As a white man, facing a car of black teenagers, was Dunn’s fear “reasonable?” To many people, the answer is yes.

I can already hear the howls from angry readers. “Why must you bring race into this?” But I haven’t brought race into anything. It’s already there.

If a fourth dimensional being came to our planet, looked at the United States, and unfurled our four hundred years of history, it would see a single constant: The steady effort to make pariahs out of black people. And if it zoomed into the current moment, and looked at the Dunn trial, and read the decision, it would come away unsurprised. Knowing what it knows about America, what else could have happened? Like the Zimmerman verdict, the Dunn verdict fits our pattern of legal injustice. And when another black boy is killed for believing he’s human, as will happen, we shouldn’t be surprised when that also fits the pattern.

If this sounds like resignation, or fatalism, it isn’t (I was surprised by the ruling). It’s simply an attempt to look with clarity. If racist outcomes are a problem we want to solve—or if not solve, ameliorate—then we owe to ourselves to dismiss our illusions. If America is freedom, and liberty, and equality, then it’s also racism. It’s our heritage. But it doesn’t have to be our inheritance.