Monday, February 17, 2014

Presume Innocence

Jordan Davis is dead. A hung jury won't change that. Several guilty verdicts of attempted murder won't change that. Repealing or otherwise reforming Florida's Stand Your Ground law won't change that. Nothing will change it. Jordan Davis is dead, the latest in a tragically long list of young black men who died violently because someone supposedly felt threatened by them.

I think of the black men I know--of Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others--and I can't imagine anyone feeling threatened by them. They're too good, too friendly, too gracious. I think of what the world would have lost if they'd been shot dead when they were young, what the world would lose today if they were shot dead. I can't imagine it.

And yet everyone is a stranger more regularly than they are a friend. For a country of nearly half a billion people, these men I call friends are unfamiliar to most. And so it remains a risk for my friends to go anywhere, to do anything. A broad cultural imagination, dominated by white culture with its insidious, festering prejudices, has presumed them guilty rather than innocent, has randomly (and not so randomly) partitioned off the land into places they belong and places they don't belong. As a white man I go pretty much anywhere I want; black men find out after the fact where they are welcome and where they are unwelcome, in often humiliating and sometimes violent ways. They are presumed guilty by the music they listen to, by the volume they set their music at, by the style of their clothes, by the cars they drive, and most fundamentally by the color of their skin. Murder trials that end in acquittals reinforce the tragic mythology, so obvious and yet so rarely acknowledged, that we have made this a white man's world, and black men are trespassing in it.

It's an irony that our courts function under the presumption of innocence, and yet for black men in particular our streets function under the presumption of guilt. I'm not immune to this; I have absorbed the cultural portrait of black men as dangerous, and in weaker, shameful moments I allow it to color my perceptions of reality. But I hope that more often than not I resist this indoctrination and give black men the benefit of the doubt. And when I do, more often than not I discover a friend worth having, a man worth admiring--men like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others, whom I'm fortunate to know.

I guess, in the wake of the murder of Jordan Smith and the trial that culminated in calling his violent death not a murder, I hope that all of us who are not black men will take our cues not from an insidiously racialized white culture but from the courts. I hope we will extend to black men the courtesy extended by the courts to people like Michael Dunn (who shot Jordan dead) and George Zimmerman (who shot Trayvon Martin dead). I hope we will resist the impulse to presume guilt when we encounter black men, and commit ourselves instead to presume innocence. If we do, we may have the great honor of meeting and befriending people like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others. At the very least, a few young black men may have the opportunity to live a full life and share their greatness with the world.

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There's a meme running on Twitter called #dangerousblackkids. It's worth a long look. Here's an example.

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