Many Americans have been following the Jacksonville, Florida case of Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis for the past few weeks. Dunn, a middle aged white man, fired ten shots into an SUV occupied with black teenage boys because of his frustration with their refusal to turn down the loud music they were playing. One of the boys, 17-year old Jordan Davis, was hit by three of those shots, and killed.
Yes, you read that synopsis correctly. Frustration is enough grounds to brandish a deadly weapon at teenagers for playing music too loudly. Frankly, this sounds like an episode of The Simpsons, but unfortunately, the reality of the situation cannot be ignored. According to Dunn, he fired in self defense because he claims to have seen a gun in the SUV, and “feared for his life”. He and his lawyers have stuck to that story during the trial, even though the police searched the car and found no weapons. Truthfully, I’m inclined to believe that there was no gun in play, because the whole situation stinks of premeditated actions, not an event stemming from fear. What I see when I look at this case are the actions of a white man who felt disrespected by black teenage boys who wouldn’t obey an order from him. I see a man who felt like he could get away with teaching those boys a lesson, because it’s so hard to argue against a claim of self-defense, especially when that act takes the life of the witness who could best disparage that claim. And even more than that, it is much easier to take a white person at their word than a person of color. We, as a society, have less moral indigestion when a white individual asks for the benefit of the doubt than when a person of color asks for the same favor.
To give some legitimacy to that claim, I find it useful to reference a study done by Jennifer L. Eberhardt on the associations individuals unconsciously make between African Americans and crime. In her study, she primed participants (white male college students) with flashes of faces: some white, some black. Afterword, she presented participants with an image of a severely degraded (grainy) image, all related to crime, and asked them to indicate at what point the image became recognizable. Those who had been primed with black faces were much quicker at detecting what the image was than those who had not. That is to say, it took fewer frames for them to recognize the image of something like a gun, or a knife, or another crime-related object. The findings from that experiment show that we are quick to make the association between people of color and crime. This lends itself to the notion that perhaps there never was a gun in the car with Jordan Davis; but his very presence as a young black man was enough to make the assumption that he, or anyone else in the car, could have had a gun. And that potential threat seemed to be enough.
Ultimately, Dunn is facing around 60 years in prison for his actions–but not directly for the murder of Davis. He is charged with the attempted manslaughter of other teens in the car, but because of the blurriness of Dunn’s self defense claim, the jury could not come to a conclusion on whether or not Dunn murdered Davis, or if he was acting to save his own life. Although Dunn’s team never directly invoked the Stand Your Ground law Florida has become infamous for, they made enough parallels for the jury to be hung up on it.
So, where does this leave us? What does it mean to have the privilege of invoking a law like Stand Your Ground in heated, racially relevant cases like this? How many black youths need to die at the hand of this law before we realize its problematic qualities?
Details about the court cases from:
Eberhardt, Jennifer L. Enduring Racial Associations: African Americans, Crime, and Animal Imagery. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century. W.W. Norton & Company.