On Saturday, Michael Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder at the end of his highly controversial trial. The judge declared a mistrial on a first-degree murder charge when the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Dunn’s crime? In November 2012 he fired shots at a car full of unarmed African American teenagers, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Dunn claims he feared for his life after Davis verbally threatened him, and that he shot at the teenagers in self-defense.
While awaiting trial, Dunn complained to his girlfriend that “this jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs.” He wrote, “if more people would arm themselves and kill these **** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.” He described the music Davis and his friends played in their car as “thug music,” calling to mind Richard Sherman’s recent observationthat “thug” has become “the accepted way of calling somebody the n-word.”
Dunn’s trial once again highlights Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.
Some opponents of Stand Your Ground have speculated that, unlike the recent George Zimmerman case, the Dunn trial may serve as an opportunity to discuss guns rather than race.
They anticipate “a deeper exploration of self-defense laws with fewer distractions tied to race.”
While this approach may be helpful in sidestepping media frenzy, deemphasizing the role of race in the shooting does an injustice to Jordan Davis and indeed to anyone trying to understand Stand Your Ground.
Because as much as we would like to focus solely on the law’s “mechanics” and “application”–those dry, harmless and scientific rubrics–Stand Your Ground does not exist in a vacuum. The law arises from a national culture which has long been hostile to “outsiders.” And as many have noted, it enables a vigilantism that, when combined with racial hostility, can become lethal.
Jeannie Suk, a Harvard Law School professor, addressed this socio-legal knot in a 2012 column for The New York Times. There Suk points out that Stand Your Ground expands Castle Doctrine laws–“the traditional legal concept that a man’s house is his castle”–and so lifts our duty “to flee an intruder’s attack before resorting to force.”
But, Suk asks, how did a doctrine meant to secure protection at home come to be applied to public streets?
Suk says the answer has two parts, one historical and one cultural.
On the historical front, Suk says Stand Your Ground has its roots in a 19th-century frontier mentality: Wherever the “American” man desires to be, he belongs. In this sense, Stand Your Ground simply extends the law as it has been traditionally understood.
But laws don’t exist without people. That’s where the cultural part comes in.
It’s important to recall that in the 19th-century frontier mentality, “American” meant “white.” Additionally, Stand Your Ground gained traction after 9/11, when lawmakers began to show “sweeping preoccupations with self defense against intruders.”
This concern with safeguarding one’s home–or castle, or perceived personal space–against some Other “[t]ragically … has also made it more likely that a vigilante would perceive the shooting of a black teenager in a gated community as self defense.”
But even setting aside the race implications of Stand Your Ground’s origins, the current reality is that the law is enforced through muddled definitions of self-defense “fueled by the cultural background and emotions that surrounded the laws’ passage.”
Which is why focusing on the law’s “mechanics” while sidelining race won’t work. The two are intertwined, and to discount racial concerns as “distractions” not only silences critical voices but also misinterprets the origins of Stand Your Ground.
If we’re to move forward with a productive discourse on gun laws, we have to stop pretending race is some untouchable issue. Considerations of race did not “distract” during George Zimmerman’s trial. They added a dimension of real concerns which we failed to deal with.
Until we get serious about addressing the fundamental role race plays in Stand Your Ground, we’re unlikely to move forward.