By Lee A. Daniels
It all seems so familiar, doesn’t it?
A black man, or woman, or child is murdered by a white person—and America’s criminal justice system compounds the tragedy.
How deep is that particular well of American racial injustice now? How many names of innocents are on that list of sorrow? How many more times will we have to look at the faces of the survivors and see that the pain of the loss of a loved one taken by criminal violence has been etched more deeply by the betrayal of a system that—supposedly—exists to protect them?
In fact, until the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s, being betrayed by the nation’s white majority was the only thing blacks could count on getting from the nation they helped build and support. Today’s “stand your ground” laws more than 20 states have enacted continue the cloaked-purpose dynamic of the post-1960s get-tough-on-crime and crack-cocaine-versus-powder-cocaine laws—and the 19th century vagrancy laws southern legislatures passed after destroying Reconstruction. They look “race-neutral” on the books but their origins and applications were and are shadowed by racial fear, anxiety, and hatred of black people. Their goal is not justice but injustice.
But, there can be no peace if there is no justice. Isn’t that one of the central lessons of the history of African Americans in America? Of course, it’s an exaggeration to say the incomplete verdict proves there’s no justice today for black Americans in America.
For one thing, as other cases in Florida, Arkansas and elsewhere have shown, the trigger-happy response to being angered—not physically threatened—by the words and actions of others sometimes reflects not racism but rather the pathological need of millions of Americans to consider guns a security blanket and problem-solver.
For another, hope remains that the murderer of Jordan Davis, now convicted of attempting to murder three of his companions who were in the SUV with him that night, will face justice for that crime as well. Prosecutor Angela Corey has been emphatic in stating she will retry Michael Dunn for first-degree murder. Certainly, his actions after the shooting and his whining letters from jail show a deep hatred of young black people, especially males, and the profound callousness required to twist hatred into murderous action.
In that sense, no matter the injustice legislated into Florida law that protects the “shoot-first” response of even ordinary citizens to even oral disputes, Michael Dunn has himself rendered the ultimate verdict on his crime. We know what he is and we know what he did.
However, the sense of tragedy and justified anger at the trial’s incomplete verdict underscores another truth of black Americans’ history. That is that all through the centuries they’ve always had to forge a response to a terrible question: What becomes a tragedy most?
The answer to that question has been exemplified in our present by the conduct of the survivors of Oscar Grant and Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin, and, now, Jordan Davis: To demand that justice be done. That has always been the responsibility of black Americans (and their allies among other Americans)—to redeem the humanity of those whose murders were ordered by the state or condoned by the state or ignored by the state. For all the spectacular progress made since the 1960s, it’s no less urgent that Blacks today continue to bear witness to that responsibility.
Why? Because it is part of black Americans’ legacy of struggle. Because blacks owe it to the innocent to rescue them from the well of lost souls. And because of what another truth of black history makes clear: The spasm of furious racist violence against the Civil Rights Movement in the South in the early to mid-1960s was actually a harbinger of the movement’s successful completion of that stage of the black freedom struggle.
So, today, the violence—of language and of murderous action—against black Americans exemplified by the Michael Dunns of the nation in fact signals that the retrograde force of white supremacy is still losing ground.
That isn’t a “happy” thought when measured against the tragedy that ended the life of a youth who had his whole life ahead of him. The only consolation available to those who seek to fully right that terrible wrong is to remember the most powerful answer to the question of what becomes a tragedy most and stand their ground on the fundamental lesson of Black History—enunciated first by the 19th-century white abolitionist Theodore Parker, and given fresh energy by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.”