**This post is part II of a three-part series addressing the historical contextualization of racism and subjugation in the United States, and the relation to the value of Black and Latino lives in the wake of the infuriating verdict in Jordan Davis’ tragic murder.**
In Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, forty years after Dred Scott, our Supreme Court legally subjugated the constitutional right of black citizens to have equal access to public accommodations, to the social rights of white citizens to be free from having to look at, be in the physical proximity of, and encounter black people. In other words, the value of black life and the constitutional protections afforded to that life was inferior to the non-constitutional rights of white people to keep black life at a distance. The Supreme Court chose to ignore the realities of constitutional text, unequal facilities, lynching, Jim Crow, and literacy tests, and found that since segregation applied to both races, no race was at a disadvantage because of the law. In other words, the Supreme Court deemed segregation to be race neutral, neither hindering nor aiding either race. That is why race matters.
Race controlled government issued privileges for so long. Until 1952 petitioners for naturalization had to prove that they were white to gain citizenship, meaning that our government, even at a time where nonwhites were considered Americans by birth, endorsed the idea that white was synonymous with being American. To be American is synonymous with constitutional rights, the presumption of innocence, equal protection under the law, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. These rights, these American values, are bestowed upon all Americans, but sadly people of color have historically received an abridged set of these rights, and an undervaluation of their worth. That is why race matters.
To deny race matters, is to deny history. Simple social science and history informs us about majority rules, groupthink, coalition building, racial politics and how one relates more to those who look like them than they relate to those that do not. That’s how the southern strategy made the South change from Democratic to Republican hands. Invoke the fear and suspicion that the majority of the voting population had about black people and civil rights, and stoke those fears, inflame them, and use coded neutral language like “criminals” and “state rights” so that they do not feel bad about their intrinsic racism. That is why race matters.
Racism is a silent killer, imprisoner and constitutional violator. To make matters worse, we can’t talk about race because to do so is deemed racist. We have set up this idea that racism is only about the KKK burning a cross on your lawn, a manifestation of extreme hate. This is wrong. Racism is a cycle, it’s deep, it is unconscious, when conscious it’s usually unspoken, it is hidden, and it built America. Racism is not just an issue for whites. We all suffer from racism. Most of us do not say it out loud. Racism is even engrained into the minds of ethnic minorities about their own ethnic group. Our first step in ending this vicious cycle is to change the commonly held definition of racism as meaning extreme hate. Racism is lack of awareness, lack of access, denial of history, willful blindness in regard to privilege, and the institutional norms and mechanisms that have disparate impacts on minority groups (like how we police, imprison, sentence, etc.). Racism means never getting the benefit of the doubt, the privileges of complexity, the right to make mistakes—if you are black or Latino. Just as an example, the Texas judge who allowed a white 16 year old who used the affluenza defense to avoid jail time after stealing cases of beer and killing four people in a drunken joy ride also sentenced a black 14 year old to 10 years for landing one punch that severely injured a victim who ultimately died two days later. That is why race matters.
Now back to Jordan Davis and Michael Dunn. Jordan Davis was a normal 17-year-old, hanging out with three friends, about to go to the mall, waiting in a 7-11 parking lot in a vehicle playing loud hip-hop music. For all intents and purposes, a normal group of high school teenagers. Except they were not normal teens, they were post-adolescent black males. Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man who totes a gun around and hates hip-hop music, parked his car in that same 7-11 where Jordan was sitting in the car with his friends. Dunn believed that his right not to hear hip-hop music during his momentary pit-stop at a 7-11 was superior to Jordan and his friends’ rights to listen to music in the vehicle— for as loud as they deemed fit (or until law enforcement came and told them to turn the music down). Dunn, with his constitutionally protected gun in tow, ordered the teens to turn the music down. One of the young men actually complied, but Jordan turned the music back up and dismissed Dunn with a few choice curse words. At that point Dunn, amazed by Jordan’s display of defiance, screamed “You can’t talk to me like that!” Dunn pulled out his gun and shot Jordan to death for daring to talk back to him. That is why race matters.
Dunn was not scared of Jordan, or his group of friends. Scared people don’t confront what they are scared of unless they absolutely have to. Dunn felt that he should not be subject to hearing that “thug music,” as he characterized it. Dunn had rights, a gun, the belief that he could assert those rights upon Jordan and his friends through use of the gun, and the institutional privilege to garner sympathy from at least one juror. All they needed was one. One juror to believe that fear of Jordan and those who look like him was enough to deprive Jordan of his right to life. One juror to believe the image of thuggery cast upon Jordan and his friends by the defense was a likely characterization and make them believe that Jordan deserved to be killed for defying Dunn. They got at least two jurors (according to post-trial juror interview) to believe Dunn’s right to not hear hip-hop and his perceived authority to police these young black men was superior to Jordan’s right to listen to music and live as a black teen in the United States. This harkens back to Dred Scott and Plessy; the social rights of Dunn, who needs to police and safeguard against these perceived menaces (men of color), can and should abrogate any illusory constitutional rights Jordan and his friends held. That is why race matters.
Jordan Davis was a good kid, without a record, never owned a gun (although Dunn lied and said Jordan pointed a gun at him), and enrolled in school. But should that even matter? What if Jordan and his friends had been arrested three times, dropped out of school, and had mental illness, but still had no gun under the same factual set of circumstances? Dunn still would have had no idea about this alternate Jordan’s background when he ordered the teens to turn down the music, and he still would have shot Jordan. The jury still would not have convicted Dunn, possibly of any crime at all. Jordan, an almost perfect kid from a two-parent family, and he was put on trial. Dunn’s defense sullied Jordan’s reputation claiming that Jordan brandished a firearm that was never found or witnessed. Much of our outrage stems from Jordan’s “goodness,” his “worthiness,” but I ask again, should that even matter? Could Jordan not be complicated, intricate, and truly like any other teen? Could Jordan’s life, his right to be a teenager, his community—could they have value? Why do we even have to ask this question? That is why race matters.
It’s important to focus the inquiry on Jordan Davis, because the issue is about the valuation of black and brown male life. White victims and their built-in value get the benefit of complexity. They can be mentally ill, aggressive, marijuana smokers, troubled or just angst-y, loud music-hearing teenagers. No one drops their value for just being human. They get to be imperfect, complex, and intricate. Don’t believe me? Let’s flip the switch. Imagine for a second that Dunn encountered a group of four beautiful white teenage girls blasting Beyonce or Katy Perry hits with hip-hop beats and rapper cameos. Would Dunn have approached them and ordered them to turn down their music? Would he have been able to pull the wool over the jury’s eyes and argue that these young women were menacing him after he engaged with them? Could he have shown reasonable fear of these women? How about if one of these young ladies threw a shoe at Dunn, and it injured him? Could he then have claimed she had a gun without any corroborating witnesses or proof? What if she said she would kill him, and he said he feared for his life so he shot her up? Do we seriously think that the two to three holdouts on the jury would have deemed Dunn justified in emptying ten rounds into the car full of these American teens? Whether you lie to yourself and say the outcome would be just the same or think twice about the outcome, that is why race matters.
Race matters because it has been pivotal in delegating rights since the inception of this great nation. Race matters because the righteous Supreme Court took years to rule that separate but equal was unconstitutional. Race matters because the majority of the country is white, in a country that steeped many rights and privileges–like becoming a citizen, voting and getting agricultural land grants–in whiteness. Race matters because those who were racist did not just stop being racist overnight. Race matters because it affects everyone, of all races, willfully blind or knowingly suffering. To be in the majority has a lot of privileges. You can be divvyed up by interests, politics, and sports teams. You can have every institution look out for you, protect you and serve you. You have the right to be imperfect and complex. You can be forgiven; you look like most other people in the country, and especially look like the vast majority of those holding the levers of political and economic power in this country. You look like their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters. You get the benefit of the doubt. That is why race matters.
In America, white people, the majority of the population, have the privilege to not think about race. To tell you that you are racist for thinking about it. To call you obsessed because you can see it, because you know history, because you live it. Those with privilege who refuse to see it, even in the face of the facts, essentially deny me and other people of color our reality, our shared experience, our trials, our tears, our heartbreak, our pain, our value and our humanity. For us to choose not to see race—to proclaim race doesn’t matter, to ignore history and experience—then decide to pop attitude or not make ourselves “safe” with a cop or a vigilante is a deadly proposition. Just ask Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride, Denis Reynoso, Jonathan Ferrell, Andy Lopez and countless others. That is why race matters.
by E. Peter Alvarez (guest contributor)