The Michael Dunn case is of a type that we see with harrowing regularity. An unarmed black man is shot and killed by a police officer or a white person. The shooter says he felt threatened.
The way we talk about those cases follows a pattern, too. The conversation quickly becomes about politics, about race, and the messy intersection of the two. Stand Your Ground. Stop and Frisk. The War on Drugs. All these things snowball into each other, and while the trials of their shooters are about the particulars of their cases, they are also about all the other gruesome cases that came before them. Amadou Diallo. Patrick Dorismond. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. We end up talking about everything, all at once, even though our criminal justice system isn't meant to resolve all of that context. Sometimes it feels as if it's not even capable of resolving the specifics of the cases in front of it.
After the Dunn verdict — he was convicted of attempted murder for shooting at Jordan Davis' friends, but the jury could not reach a verdict on the question of whether he was justified in shooting the unarmed Davis — many people couldn't help but note the dark irony. Dunn wasn't convicted of killing Davis, a fact no one disputes, but was convicted of shooting at Davis' friends and missing.
I spoke to Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic ("On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn) and Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast ("White Fear Matters More Than Black Lives"), who both wrote searing columns in the immediate aftermath of the verdict that blew up all over social media, here at NPR Tuesday. Their essays got at a lot of the frustration that a lot of people were feeling with the way this trial played out, and the conversation surrounding it. Some of our conversation aired during Wednesday's Morning Edition, but quite a few people asked to hear it in full. So we've decided to share a director's cut of that conversation, which you can hear below.
Here are a few of the highlights.
In the George Zimmerman case, the hoodie Trayvon Martin was wearing became a kind of racial Rorschach — it was either a benign article of clothing or a signifier of racial menace. In the Dunn case, the hip-hop blaring from Davis' car played the same role. Here's what Coates and Bouie said:
Coates: If it was a car full of white kids, would that have gone down the way that it did? Even if they were listening to the same music? But also beyond that, hip-hop is no more violent than American pop culture is violent. What do our video games look like? What do our movies look like? What do our comic books look like? Is hip-hop really any different than the country from which it comes? And yet hip-hop in particular is "thug music"... that's actually not very different from the broader culture within which it resides. Which is not to say it shouldn't be critiqued, but I'm saying that those other things are not affixed with that label.
And so often, this is how racism actually works. ... Barack Obama is actually an exceptional individual. It is not the exceptional individuals who are the test cases for whether the country is racist or not. It is when we start getting to the mean — or very often, in the case of criminal justice, to those who are below the mean, if we want to put it that way — how are they then treated? If you mess up, if two people mess up, are they treated equally? That really is the test case, not whether an exceptional person can break all barriers. The majority of black people are not going to be exceptional. They're going to be mediocre, because the majority of white people are not going to be exceptional, they're going to be mediocre, because the majority of human beings are going to be mediocre. The test case is not our exceptions; it's the ordinary. And in the sense that hip-hop is like the rest of American culture, why that particular label? Like a lot of kids, my favorite comic book hero growing up was Wolverine, whose body count in a single comic book can be ridiculous. Was I engaging in thug [behavior], in murderous art? Well, yeah. Kinda, wasn't I?
Bouie: No one would go to, like, a comic book shop and see a bunch of kids trading Wolverine or Deadpool comics and say, "Those are a bunch of potential murderers." We would all treat them as distinct individuals — as well you should. Dunn, Zimmerman — each of these people did not look at Trayvon, Jordan. They were thugs. [A] nondescript mass of black threat. Which is, you know, I wouldn't say "in their defense," but in context, that's just how we've portrayed black men.
One common reaction to the media attention these cases draw is that there isn't nearly as much focus given to homicides in which both the killer and victim are black. No one in this conversation bought that premise, though.
Coates: First of all, it has no meaning because nobody talks more about black-on-black crime ...
Demby, Bouie: [in unison] ... than black people.
Coates: No one. No one. I mean, it's not our fault that people who say that don't pay attention. The idea that when Hadiya Pendleton got killed that black people in Chicago weren't talking about that is ridiculous.
Demby: It was all over the news. Michelle Obama talked about it.
Coates: Exactly. It was everywhere.
Bouie: It's part of casual conversation. I can't even count the number of time my parents or my church [said] ... "We've got to stop killing ourselves."
Coates: It's constant! The song was called "Self Destruction"! That was the actual song! That was the name of it! That's like a real thing. That more than anything about Klan violence or anything like that, that was the constant drumbeat of my youth in Baltimore. And so the idea that black folks don't talk [about it] ... first of all it's false.
But let's just pull out for a second and go 1,000 feet in the air and look at that. The neighborhoods in which there are higher crime rates for African-Americans and in which larger numbers of African-Americans are killed by African-Americans were produced by policy. The South Side of Chicago is not a mistake. North Lawndale [in Chicago] is not a mistake. West Baltimore is not a mistake. It was supposed to happen that way. And so ... watching a state, a society perpetrate an injury upon a group of people — and then hide it — and then use the results to perpetrate more injury, over and over and over again.
This case wasn't about the politics of Florida's Stand Your Ground statute inside the courtroom, but the larger conversation around this case is very much concerned with that provision as policy and politics. But Bouie said that repealing Stand Your Ground, a position that both he and Coates advocate, is an almost impossible lift.
Bouie: To repeal that law, in effect, [means building coalitions either] with people who support that law, or [who] represent constituencies who support that law; constituencies that are mostly white and are from certain portions of the state and have the attitudes they have for grounded historical reasons. ... So even that sort of Step 1 — how can we do something about this solution, repeal the law — is almost impossible. Like, it's, just not going to happen. ... The way our political system is designed, there's no way to fix that legislatively without the explicit cooperation and support of white Americans. ... Let's say that only 20 percent of white Americans believe that there are no significant racial disparities in American life: In the American political system, that just might as well mean a majority.
Coates shared the story of his college friend Prince Jones, who was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop. In the Washington, D.C., area, that killing became a huge story.
Coates: I have a piece I'm working on, I guess I can share this, about a buddy of mine who was killed. ... His mother was a radiologist. She made the mistake of being an American and buying her son a Jeep for his 23rd birthday. He went out in that Jeep. The police out in Prince George's County [Md.] were looking for a suspect with a Jeep of a similar make. They ran the tags. The tags came up for this woman in Pennsylvania — who was his mother — 'cause that's where it was registered. They assumed it was stolen and followed this young man through three jurisdictions and shot him. My friend, Prince Jones, was a born-again Christian. He was going to see his daughter. And his fiancee. His mother was perfectly upstanding. And her life was plundered; her legacy was plundered. Her child was taken away. Respectability has nothing to do with this. There's no way that you dress a certain way or speak more polished that [pause] makes you not a n- - - - -. And you all can cut that if you need to cut that; I'm sorry. But: These are the facts. There's no way ... there's no way to get you out of that. That's what racism says you are and the way to get out of that is to eliminate racism. [Laughs] Listen: That brother's mother, I sat with her and she said, "I had talked to him about how to deal with the police. It's not like we didn't have that conversation. Yeah, we did." I talked to Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis' mother. She said, "I talked to Jordan about that. It's not like we didn't have a conversation about how to comport himself when he's out. But that boy ... is 17 years old. You can't say that the way to not get killed is to have the maturity of a 45-year-old." That's just ... OK, so then we lose. That is actual racist logic. Because you're not requiring that of white young men. Seventeen-year-old white men. That is racism.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now let's listen to some of the discussion spurred by the jury verdict in the Michael Dunn trial. Dunn is the white Florida man who shot and killed Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager at point blank range. The jury deadlocked on the charge of first degree murder of Davis, but did convict Michael Dunn of lesser charges, including the attempted murder of others who were with Davis at the time in a vehicle with him.
Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team has been following the discussion. He's in our studios. Gene, good morning.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And of course a lot has been said on the news and on social media, but you're trying to get us to a little deeper level here. Who'd you talk with?
DEMBY: So I spoke to two writers who wrote essays that got a lot of traction in the immediate aftermath of the verdict and who talked about a lot of the broader issues surrounding this trial.
JAMELLE BOUIE: I'm Jamelle Bouie. I am a staff writer at The Daily Beast.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I'm Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'm a national correspondent at The Atlantic.
INSKEEP: What do you mean broader issues?
DEMBY: So both Coates and Bouie talked about the role that our history and that race plays in the way a case like this is both talked about outside of the courtroom and in the courtroom. The problem is that a case like this is about the particulars of the case, but the discreet particularities of this case get mashed into all the other similar cases like it. This case becomes about Treyvon Martin. This case also becomes about the shooting of Sean Bell.
It also becomes about the shooting of Amadou Diallo. And so all of those things come to bear in the conversation around this case.
INSKEEP: You raise a good point when you say this is a particular case, it's a particular trial of particular events, but in many cases those specifics do end up getting mashed into the larger discussion of race. We end up hearing about, after the Zimmerman trial, the detail of a hoodie and what does the hoodie mean. In this case it was called the loud music trial.
DEMBY: Right. So just as in the Zimmerman case, where the hoodie became kind of a racial Rorschach, the music that Davis and his friends were listening to in their car became kind of a signifier of their putative criminality.
INSKEEP: So when music gets raised - essentially as a defense. They were playing loud music. I felt threatened. What does that make people talk about?
DEMBY: So the conversation often turns to this idea of respectability - that is, if Treyvon Martin had not been wearing his hoodie or if Jordan Davis and his friends had turned down their music, maybe they could've preempted this suspicion that they were criminals. But both Bouie and Ta-Nehisi Coates shot that idea down.
BOUIE: Respectability politics is both a response of and utterly incompatible with the existence of racism. (Unintelligible) by definition racism obliterates the individual.
INSKEEP: Obliterates the individual. His argument is that in some cases it's not going to matter what you do.
DEMBY: Right. I mean if the conversation becomes about what you're wearing or what you're listening to, then the conversation is about you becoming part of this undifferentiated mass of kind of black menace, right. And Ta-Nehisi Coates offered up a really chilling personal anecdote as a rejoinder to that idea.
COATES: A buddy of mine who was killed, his mother was a radiologist. She made the mistake of being an American and buying her son a Jeep for his 23rd birthday. He went out in that Jeep. The police were out in Prince George's County, were looking for a suspect with a Jeep of this similar make. They ran the tags. The tags came up to this woman in Pennsylvania who was his mother, 'cause that's where it was registered.
They assumed it was stolen, followed this young man through three jurisdictions, and shot him. My friend Prince Jones was a born again Christian. He was going to see his daughter and his fiance. His mother was perfectly upstanding. And her child was taken away. Respectability has nothing to do with this. I talked to Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis's mother.
I talked Jordan about that. It's not like we didn't have a conversation about how to, you know, comport himself when he's out. But that boy is 17 years old. You can't, like, say the way to not get killed is to have the maturity of a 45-year-old. I mean that's just, you know, okay, so then we lose. Like that is actual racist logic because you are not requiring that of white young men.
You're only requiring that of black people. That is racism.
INSKEEP: Powerful story there from Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Gene Demby, this is a reminder that while what we have here is a trial about specific facts, they spread out and there's a story in many people's heads that gets recounted, that they remember, that they tell to other people at a moment like this.
DEMBY: That's absolutely right. Again, this story becomes about a bunch of other stories like this. And these criminal cases are not set up to resolve these other stories, and that's why it gets so messy. These cases can't deal with any of the other issues at play.
INSKEEP: And of course there's also a political issue that gets raised here. For example, the Stand Your Ground law, which has been hotly debated and is going to be again after this trial.
DEMBY: Right. And to go back to the idea of snowballing, the Jordan Davis shooting happens after the Treyvon Martin shooting. The conversation around that case became about Florida's Stand Your Ground law. This case has, again, become a flashpoint for that same conversation. The Stand Your Ground statute is really polarizing. It's really popular among Republicans. It's deeply unpopular among Democrats.
And so Jamelle Bouie was talking a little bit about how this case doesn't really move the political landscape.
BOUIE: To repeal that law, in effect, either means building coalitions with people who support that law or represent constituencies who support that law, constituencies that are mostly white, that are in conservative parts in the state and have the attitudes they have for like grounded historical reasons. So even in that sort of step one, how can we do something about this solution, repeal the law, is almost impossible, right?
Like, it's just not going happen. You know, the way our political system's designed, there's no way to fix that legislatively without the explicit cooperation and support of white Americans. Let's say that only 20 percent of white Americans believe that there are no significant racial disparities in American life. In the American political system, that might as well just mean the majority though.
INSKEEP: Writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie. Is all this a reminder, Gene Demby, that we just cannot expect too much of a given trial? We cannot expect it necessarily to address these larger issues in a meaningful way?
DEMBY: These trials tend to focus our attention on issues surrounding race in the criminal justice system, but they can't resolve them. The criminal justice system is a really bad proxy for the resolution of these big centuries-old historical issues that may come to bear on the criminal justice system. So there's this really weird paradox that happens in that we're talking about a trial, but we're not talking about the trial itself.
We're talking about everything all at once, and trials just aren't equipped to do that.
INSKEEP: Gene, thanks very much.
DEMBY: Thank you so much, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.