The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

In On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, Ta-Nehisi Coates confronts the injustice of simply being born an African American son:

Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.

These words—”We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant”—echo James Baldwin writing in 1966:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

In this essay, Baldwin lays bare the scar of racism in the U.S.:

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

Post-racial discourse offers make-up, seeks a bit of cosmetic surgery for that scar, but denying racism doesn’t erase racism. The Michael Dunn verdict as partially a “mistrial” is a bitter but apt term for the lack of justice when the victim is an African American young man.

Failing to convict Dunn is more of the evidence problem facing those who seek to deny racism in the U.S.

Baldwin’s essay from 1966 simply remains a chilling echo behind Coates’s final words:

I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought crazy.

I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge, that the G.I Bill’s accolades are somehow inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.

For young African American men in the U.S., the options appear incredibly narrow between the mass incarceration machine rightly called The New Jim Crow and victimization that can never find justice as Baldwin warned: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

Jordan Davis, like Trayvon Martin, joins a growing list of casualties for whom we cannot even sigh rest in peace.

See also:

Black Boy Interrupted, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fight With Us Too, Damnit (Educators and Jordan Davis), Jose Vilson


18 thoughts on “The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

  1. No, you are conflating things that should not be. Step back and take a look at what you and others are saying on this.

    First, this jury had no problem at all convicting Dunn on the other four charges, including the three of attempted 2nd degree murder for his shooting at the other three young men. And therein lies why this is not like Zimmerman’s acquittal nor is the case identical. With Zimmerman, the prosecutors very rightly sought conviction for 1st degree murder: he pursued Travon Martin and caused the deadly encounter in a way that properly meets the definition of premeditation under the 1st degree murder statute. The failure to convict him on this was clearly a product of the kind of latent and institutionalized racism you refer to.

    But what happened in this case is different in how the actions of Dunn must be dealt with by the law (though given what we know now of his character, I do not doubt that he harbors exactly those racist inclinations that Zimmerman displayed more openly.) Here, we had a confrontation that escalated directly into violence with no sign that Dunn went to that place or initiated the confrontation with the purpose of killing anyone (unlike Zimmerman.) By the nature of the statutes, that precludes premeditation and thus makes this properly 2nd degree rather than 1st degree murder (that is, committed in the heat of the moment rather than premeditated.) If the prosecutor had brought (or even allowed for the jury to consider, as they can under Florida law) the 2nd degree charge (as they did with the attempted murder charges on which he was convicted) Dunn would almost certainly now be convicted on all counts. This was a prosecutorial mistake that hopefully they will rectify at the next trial so that Dunn really will spend the rest of his life in prison as he deserves.

    None of this denies the perilous situation young black men find themselves in with regard to both authorities and far too many private citizens. That is still a terrible problem and a legacy of our long history of racism. But do not confuse the actions of this jury with these things or with the blatant racism of a be-suited troglodyte like Dunn.

    • I’m not conflating anything as you are focusing on points that my piece is not about in any way. The nuances of law are not my point, but that racism still exists powerfully in society and institutions is my point.

      • On that point, we whole-heartedly agree. I know I called you out a bit previously on applying these ideas to the wealthiest Americans (that 0.1% at the very top) but even there I wasn’t trying to deny the more general legacy of racism that still haunts us. As with this, I was making a much narrower argument about those for whom money really does seem to be the only driving factor, above racism, above ideology (except as it serve them in accumulating wealth), above morality, above virtually everything that affects the rest of us. But they are the rare few, in this as much as in their wealth and only because they are, essentially, monomaniacs for whom other considerations are simply not important. For far too many other Americans and the institutions that represent them, alas, your analysis is all too accurate.

  2. Stewart,

    While I acknowledge the clarity in which you analyzed the Dunn conviction, I disagree with your use of the Zimmerman trial as an example of the deadly type of racism that Paul Thomas refers to. While Zimmerman was guilty of racial profiling, the physical evidence and testimonials painted a picture of Zimmerman having been physically assaulted by Martin prior to shooting him. Both parties (Zimmerman and Martin) made bad decisions that led to the loss of a young life. None of us were there to witness the incident… but the physical evidence corroborates Zimmerman’s account of the incident in which he found himself on his back being punched and having his skull banged on the concrete ground. Most people in this compromising position would use whatever means were at their disposal to get out of the situation to avoid great bodily harm or death. In this case, it was a gun and current Florida law allows the use of deadly force in self-defense. Due process was observed. Do the research yourself and really ask yourself how much of that case you’ve speculated and how much you’ve based on empirical evidence.

    This was an unfortunate situation for everyone involved but the court of public opinion in this country is tainted by sensationalist media and poses one of the greatest threats to justice. To echo your sentiment of unnecessary conflation, I observed the Zimmerman case to have been conflated and used as a platform for all types of people to voice their own ignorance and further their own agenda.

    With that said, I think that those who insist that we live in a post-racist society are utterly blind. Systemic racism is real. Those of us fighting for social justice should be especially particular about what examples we use to further our arguments. Using poor arguments to validate Truths is an injustice itself and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of integrity.

    • I tend to be a bit more skeptical of the details of the Zimmerman trial, since we have only his word for what occurred and fairly sketchy physical evidence to back any of it. But my main point on Zimmerman is still clear: he pursued Martin for no other reason than his own blatant racism and desire to use force against a black man, forcing a conflict with a teenager who posed no threat to him until the actual confrontation began (and no one seems to ask why Martin did not have an equal right to stand his ground against the strange man who pursued him in direct contradiction of instructions from the authorities the first place.) What happened in that conflict we will never know for sure, but can we just so easily condemn a teenager in this kind of situation, one in which he doubtless did feel threatened himself? If you have taught, you know that teenagers of any background, intelligence, training, etc., etc. will make poor decisions far more often than we’d hope, especially under stress, simply because they do not yet have the experience and emotional maturity to do otherwise. Of course, the same can be said for far too many supposed adults, but we rightly do not afford them the leeway we should give to teens who are still learning these things at the proper time.

      That was my point here, that we are dealing with different legal situations that must be handled differently under that law. In both cases, the shooter should have been held culpable; in Zimmerman’s case he was not because of the ridiculous breadth of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and the lack of any other testimony to counter his. Nonetheless, what he admits he did clearly falls under the definition of premeditation if you do not have the Stand Your Ground law as cover. In my own state, he would have been convicted without a doubt because he wouldn’t have had that shield to stand behind, regardless of whether his testimony about the confrontation was accepted or not. If you want to look at one of the very things that is the product of the institutionalized racism Paul was talking about, Stand Your Ground laws are a horrible example and, in this case, had their inevitable effect: they allowed a murderer to walk free because he could claim to be threatened by a conflict he himself made happen. The fruit of that poisoned tree was another dead young black man, one of far too many every day.

      • What exactly are you basing your skepticism of the details of the Zimmerman case on? Speculation? A gut feeling? A desire to rewrite the narrative to fit in with your own personal social theory?

        Your statement that he “desire[d] to use force on a black man” is a projection. You’re not a mind reader. Let’s stick to verifiable facts.

        1. 2 weeks prior to the deadly incident Zimmerman witnessed a young black male breaking into a house in the neighborhood. Zimmerman at the time was the community appointed neighborhood watch leader. The suspect was later arrested with the stolen items from the house in his possession. There’s an official police report on it. Look it up. From this incident, we can reasonable conclude how Zimmerman came to profile young black males as possible criminals. On the whole, this is wrong but the truth is that we all profile every single day. We categorize and make judgements as a navigate through our lives based on observation and experience. While Zimmerman was most like guilty of racial profiling, it is not a criminal offense.

        2. Many assumed that Zimmerman acquired and carried a gun simply because he desired to “use force on a black man”.

        Here’s the back story that no one cared to look up:

        “Zimmerman’s background, his family, his career, and his prior troubles with the law, is the story about how Zimmerman came to carry a gun. It started when a neighborhood dog, a pitbull named Big Boi, cornered his wife Shellie Zimmerman in their yard in the fall of 2009. George Zimmerman bought pepper spray, but when he called Seminole County Animal Services to complain about the dog, the officer who responded had this advice for him:

        “Don’t use pepper spray,” he told the Zimmermans, according to a friend. “It’ll take two or three seconds to take effect, but a quarter second for the dog to jump you,” he said.

        “Get a gun.”

        After completing handgun training, both George and Shellie Zimmerman bought pistols.”

        3. A higher percentage of blacks using the Stand Your Ground case benefited from it than whites. That fact negates your assertion that Stand Your Ground is an example of institutional racism.

        Ask yourself: if a neighborhood watch leader followed and confronted an individual who he did not recognize as living in a gated community and fit the profile of a criminal suspect that was caught just two weeks prior would you think he was out of line? Criminally so? And what if the suspect began physically assaulting the neighborhood watch leader? If the neighborhood watch leader felt his life was threatened during the physical assault, he is legally in the right to use deadly force.

        The fact that you came to the conclusion that he premeditated the shooting of Trayvon Martin while speaking to the police on the phone requires some mental gymnastics that I can’t even comprehend.

        Stand Your Ground was not the reason Zimmerman was acquitted. It was a simple self-defense case made complex by the media and the court of public opinion. The fact that media immediately began showing pictures of Martin as a 12 year old and pictures of Zimmerman in an orange prison jumpsuit says everything about how the media conflated this case.

        I grew up a young male of color and I currently work with young males of color. I hope they know better than to initiate a physical assault on anyone unless they are prepared to deal with the possible consequences. The moral of the story is this: don’t initiate a physical assault. Period.

        Radical scholars,

        There are far more relevant examples of institutional and systemic racism. As a movement, I insist that we stick to facts and truths. Jumping onto mob bandwagons is the wrong way to go. Keep critical education critical!

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