Jordan Davis’ mother doesn’t want the killing of her son to be looked at as a hate crime. The 17-year-old Davis, a black teenager, was shot and killed on 23 November by a 45-year-old white man named Michael Dunn, after what has been called a dispute over loud music.
According to reports, Dunn pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store where Davis and his friends were sitting in their car. The man asked the teens to turn their music down, at which point he and Davis exchanged words. Allegedly, Dunn then pulled out his gun and shot at the vehicle eight or nine times, hitting Davis twice.
Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath, doesn’t want to interject race into the case of her son’s killing – because she wants justice. She and the rest of Davis’ family know full well the divisiveness that comes when you start throwing the term “racist” around.
We’re barely nine months past the period when the killing of Trayvon Martin dominated the news, and already the deaths of the two teenagers are being compared. Both happened in Florida, both at the hands of men identified as white, and neither of the teens was armed with anything more than his blackness. In both cases, the shooter says he felt threatened and, because of this, has the potential to walk because of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” gun law.
The ambiguity of the definition of “threat” under the law grants so much latitude that it isn’t hard to see why George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, would argue he felt threatened by what he described as a black man wearing a hoodie who appeared – to Zimmerman’s limited knowledge – to be on drugs. Or that “four black men” (the prerequisites for a gang, if you ask some) in a car posed an imminent threat to Dunn’s life, even though the police have not recovered the shotgun (or any weapon at all) that Dunn claims he saw before shooting. “Stand your ground” sets the bar incredibly low for what constitutes as a threat, and when deadly force can be deployed to neutralize that threat, men like Dunn and Zimmerman are emboldened to act as vigilantes.
There are, however, important differences to note in these cases. Dunn, unlike Zimmerman, was arrested almost immediately and there doesn’t appear to be the same type of gross incompetence on the part of the police handling his case as there was with Zimmerman. The main thread connecting the two still holds, though: a 17-year-old black teen is dead.
For me, another name came to mind when I heard the news of Davis’ death: Oscar Grant. It’s not an exact comparison by any means, but I think of Grant, the 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by Oakland police officer Johannes Mersehle, because of when he was murdered. It was New Year’s day 2009, a little less than two months after the election of President Barack Obama. Jordan Davis was killed the day after Thanksgiving 2012, not even three full weeks after the re-election of the nation’s first black president. While a country celebrated its achievement, the deaths of these young men offered bloody reminders of just how far we haven’t come in the battle against racism.
Every few months, another young black person makes their way into our lives as a news headline as a result of racist violence, and still, we manage to look the other way. We yet lack the collective will to call it what it is. Whether it’s Davis, Martin, Grant, Rekia Boyd, Ramarley Graham, Wendell Allen, or any of the other black people who lost their lives as the result of extrajudicial killing – one for every 36 hours in the first half of 2012.
We keep looking at their deaths in a vacuum – as the result of one unhinged killer, a lone actor who, once locked away, will eliminate the problem. When do we stop lying to ourselves?
We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the post-civil rights/Obama era is one in which racism either doesn’t exist or is waning to the point of irrelevance. Whether or not things are “better” starts to feel inconsequential when “better” still means young black people aren’t safe in their own skin. We haven’t come to grips with the fact that America is a fundamentally racist society. Racism built this country into what we know it to be today. It takes more than observing a Martin Luther King Jr holiday and electing a black president to unwind such deepseated bigotry. We can’t eradicate it if we can’t name it, and so long as we refuse to name it, more Jordans, more Trayvons and more Oscars will die. Their blood is on our hands, and we’ve become so self-satisfied, we don’t even bother to wash it off. We keep moving as if they never existed.
That’s the heart of the problem: for so many, they don’t exist. Racism renders them invisible, their lives disposable. The best they can do is become a cause, a talking-point or a symbol. But what good are symbols if they don’t portend action? What use is a symbol to a family in mourning?
I understand why Davis’ mother would like to avoid the media spotlight and not allow her son’s death to become yet another talking-point. Still, we have no choice but to take the lesson of his death forward with us, because the reality is this will happen again. Our charge is to keep calling it what it is until everyone gets the hint.
Views – 143