tw: racial violence; On the necessary use of violence in regard to one’s self-defense and the inherent social issues which comes with the perception of danger and the Black male.
At night at Swarthmore, where the campus is relatively poorly lit, it’s rare for people to say hello to me. As we are approaching one another, my face shrouded by a hoodie or hidden in the darkness, students look at me, squinting their eyes in order to attempt to identify me, but in finding that it is too dark – and that I am too dark to be seen – they look away. There is a certain terror I see in their expressions, for they cannot recognize me as Xavier, as fellow student. They see in me a black male figure, and all the roles similar figures play in the American imagination.
Black men have become symbols of violence in our culture. We are seen as dangerous in our very existence, and must bear the weight of the burden of the epidermalization of contempt which is the immediate response of those whose paths we cross. This fact incensed me to no end during my first year at Swarthmore, having never experienced this form of fear before. I did not see myself as scary because I knew that I was a good one. The clothes I wore, the way I walked and the words I used revealed immediately that I posed no threat, although the assumptions that someone’s hostility can be boiled down to outward appearances is obviously dubious. Yet still, it continues to be a menace to the lives of several million, for it is has been the justification for countless murders, all in the name of self-defense.
The notion of Black men representing violence is an issue of American sensibilities. Our culture is saturated with images which present Black men as violent, as villainous, as ravenous. The understood virtues of white people represent a stark contrast the character assassination of Black men. In presenting the Black man as dangerous, you present, consequentially, since blacks and whites, oddly, represent opposites, that the White man is defensive. The Black man represent sexual hunger, is, as Fanon writes, biological while the White man, conversely, represents virility and society. When applied to white women, through the white male imagination, which, unfortunately, is also our own, we see white women as unnaturally and unjustly chaste and Black women, conversely, as disgustingly lascivious. The Black man’s power and his danger are in his phallus, while the Black women’s fury and scorn lie in her perpetual dissatisfactions with her male counterpart. It is all bullshit, it is all absurd, yet we continue, all of us, to live this lie, a lie we try to make true.
3 ½ minutes Ten Bullets, a recent documentary on the murder of Jordan Davis, discusses the issues of the perception of Black men as threats. The word perception is crucial to this dialogue, for in our abilities to perceive and understand one another (à la Foucault) lies the inherent desire for the dominant group to exert their will over the subaltern. Jordan Davis, a seventeen-year-old black boy living with his mother in Florida, was killed because of his perceived threat to the life of Michael Dunn, a typical white man of typical sensibilities. The film presents itself as relatively straightforward in its desired intent; it focuses on the people who knew Jordan in order to build from their memory an image of the bright young man who fell prey to the vicious snares of a society built on the notions of Black cultural and existential inferiority. Michael Dunn, who can be described as nothing more than average in every way possible, is the type of person who when given the possession of a firearm because of his Second Amendment rights and the right to defend himself because of an ambiguous law, is able to commit atrocities against black people on the grounds of his own fears. In providing the spectator with Dunn’s personal lamentations and gripings through recorded jail phone calls, we see a manifestation of the white conscience which so many of us bear, which is the justification for the deaths of thousands.
The film’s amalgamation of various forms of audio media create a web of thoughts on the issue of Stand-Your-Ground laws. One voice among them rings disgustingly clear – The issue is not about actual threat, but perceived threat.
Perception is ambiguous, is subjective. I can perceive something which is not there, can find evidence to prove that I was justified in being alarmed. In an ideal, colorless world, these laws could function properly to provide people with the legal grounds to protect themselves with deadly force if necessary. But we do not live in such a world, and never will. When you grow up in a nation which feeds you content which tells you that Black music is violent and destructive, is Entartete kunst, that the diversification of television by Black actors and artists is “the blacks taking over,” that Black culture propagates internalized violence and racial regression, then the Black man, as a product of his degenerate culture, is but a manifestation of all ills which spills from America’s most hated ethnic group. In doing so, we paint Black teenagers as violent thugs who want nothing more than to rape white women and kill white men. We take from them all of the sensibilities which we afford to white children and makes beasts from boys.
Every interaction a person has with a Black man will be conducted through the lens of their potential violence. The Black man will be watched and observed to see if he meets the mold which you are taught to find. Those who fail the examination are dismissed as other others. They cannot be understood with this particular set of lens, are outside of the possibilities of the narrow American imagination. Thus they are given new identities – good kid, intelligent, white.
Those who pass the test, who meet the criteria, are comforting, for in passing the examination, they prove that the test itself is not a farce. And of course if you create a large enough net with small enough holes, you will succeed, no matter what, in catching something – or someone.
Jordan Davis was just loud enough, and just disrespectful enough, and just dangerous-looking enough to warrant the perception of him as menace, as threat in Michael Dunn’s American imagination. As he says himself, and as his attorney reiterates in the closing remarks, Michael Dunn is not racist. Or better yet, he does not embody the archetype of American racism to which we have grown accustomed. He does not masquerade around in sheets, burning crosses and calling himself a wizard or a dragon. He has not shaven his head and tattooed over his heart those swirling Sanskrit arms which are now synonymous, in the West at least, with twentieth-century industrial horror. He is not a racist, has not adopted the identity of racist as a means of describing his worldview, his politics, but he is racist in his understanding of his own protection coming at the necessary cost of the lives of one person, and potentially three more Black boys, all of which had the duty to live just as Dunn did. He is racist in his understanding of his being on trial for murder as being a fluke, as being a testament to America’s undeserving devotion towards the prioritization of a race of inferior people in a traditionally white country. He is racist in his equivalence of black music’s historical discussions and glorifications of aggression with the illusion of the Black man as violence incarnate. Michael Dunn is racist and his denial of the reality of his internalized racism, much of which is not necessarily his fault, which puts the nail in his psychological coffin.
I don’t like guns. I do not even like seeing them on police officers in holsters, or, as of recently during a train ride home from school, in their hands, looking far grander and far more lethal than is likely necessary for the situation. The comfort of these ordinary officers with these guns – assault rifles the likes of which I have only seen in terrible movies and in violent video games – is the disturbing nature of our society. The police must now arm themselves to be at an advantage to the society, which is now heavily armed, too. Our preoccupation with armament has led to the necessity of a hyper-armed paramilitary corps you can reach, if you dare, by dialing 911. Depending on where you live, that force will be at your home in minutes, ready to shoot.
Unlike so many millions, I do not like the idea of needing a gun to protect myself. The notion of “judged by 12 over carried by six” prioritizes the murder of others over the murder of the self, instead of addressing the issue of murder as a social phenomenon. Stand-your-ground laws proposes violence as a response to violence and allows individuals to put justice in their own hands.
Yet, above all, stand-your-ground laws assume that human beings exist without biases, that our culture is not ruled by a set list of types and molds through which Americans see the world at a great and alienating distance. They assume that average Americans are capable of thinking rationally about the world around them while allowing a media culture which perpetuates the dehumanization of those so often caught in the racist crosshairs.
Michael Dunn was convicted for the murder of Jordan Davis by a jury of his peers. He will enjoy the rest of his days on Earth in the confinement of a cell for the premeditated murder of a young Black man who he perceived to be a threat to his own life, a life he believed, implicitly, to matter more than that of Jordan Davis. And although this case resulted in a sense of triumphant justice, the jury’s verdict will not revive Jordan, nor will it make the wounds which his death has left in parents’ hearts sting any less.
In the future, I cannot imagine that I will purchase a gun. I hope to live in a country – or a locale within a country – where the concept of owning a gun is absurd. For one, I am innately distrusting of myself, so much so that I believe that owning a gun, an instrument with which I can end so easily the life of anyone, can do me any earthly good. The difference between a gun and a knife is that a gun is a long-distance weapon with which I can inflict maximum damage with minimum training. I do not need to be near you to kill you and I don’t need to have any particular expertise to gain or use a gun efficiently. Sure, I can train at a shooting-range, can take classes if I want. But the possession of a gun requires none of this, and that is the terror of it all.
It is becoming more normal in the United States to own a gun. Seen as a way of protecting one’s family and one’s possessions, gun ownership is growing in popularity in the wake of so many mass killings. Politicians are rallying around the notion of an America where everyone carries around their oversized military-grade killing-machines, and soon we will be bringing the Wild West into the posh suburbs and urban streets. We will live in an America both eternally charged and emotionally mitigated by the omnipresence of instruments of murder.
The issue of stand-your-ground laws is the role perception plays in the necessity for self-defense. If I perceive you as a threat, I am therefore justified to snuff out your existence. My life > your life, my existence > your existence. Perception in our collective American imagination is necessarily controlled by the social notions which preoccupy Americans about the otherness of our subaltern populations, an otherness whose very existence is a threat.
Yet, let’s ruminate on an inverted situation. As African-Americans continue to bombard ourselves on social media with the killings of our kith and kin, as we watch in unsurprised fury as another one of ours is extinguished by one of his protectors or by a man or woman who felt his/her life was in danger, what are our options? How can we stop the violence which is becoming once again – at least publically – a part of “the fact of blackness?”
Should we, too, arm ourselves? Should we go back to the Panthers who advocated the right to carry in order to protect themselves from white racists who dropped their bedsheets for blue uniforms? Should we all go out now and register for guns in order to protect ourselves from those who have purchased guns to protect themselves for us? Should we begin the first step towards our eventual genocide?
Violence will not be solved by violence, cannot be solved by violence. The mass armament of African-Americans in this tumultuous time will only prove the notions of Black violence which we all carry in the American imagination while also necessitating the extinction of our people. The presence of a gun on the felled body of a Black women will only make the frightened assailant who killed her in cold blood because she was a perceived threat justified in his murderousness.
To be honest, I fear white people more than I do black people. I fear the power which white people have without knowing it, fear their understated understanding that their lives matter more than mine in our legal system. I fear the ways that the White imagination fabricates lie after lie in order to keep its captives in a restless sleep, and I fear how attached White people on the Internet, on television, in movies, in all forms of easily consumable media, have become to the idea of being asleep. At Swarthmore, I may occupy the role of black scholar, of aspiring academic, of amateur essayist, etc., but in Florida, who am I other than a Black man, a walking danger, a ticking-time bomb, a future victim?
If Michael Dunn, a man charged with and convicted of the premeditated murder of a young black boy in Jacksonville, Florida, perceived his victim as being a threat to him solely on the grounds of him embodying the image of Black male violence, an image which has no statistical or factual grounding, than I, as a twenty-first century Black man, living in a country who tells him every day that his potential murderer will likely be acquitted, should feel justified in feeling threatened by the presence of every White man I come across on the street. Is this the fear I am expected to live in, the infernal panic which I am expected to internalize without question? If I arm myself, will the possession of that metal killing-machine make that fear go away?
It is disturbing to theorize this, because it is disturbing to me, at least, to theorize violence as an answer to anything. This may seem hypocritical when one reads some of my older work, but the two forms of violence are different. The violence of discomfort is a violence which seeks to shake awake, if even for a second, the cryogenic sleep of Americans removed from the issue of race. This is a violence which is temporary, a manifestation which I hesitate greatly to call violent at all. Yet, this instance of aggression in question is a violence with the potential to kill. We must understand that all human lives are priceless, that the death of anyone is a tragedy. Yet, it seems, someone has added “but some deaths are more tragic than others” to the barn wall.
Whenever I leave home in New Jersey to go see my friends or to get lunch in town, my mother tells me Be safe. I know exactly what she’s talking about and so do all my Black brothers and sisters when they hear their parents say the same words when leaving the assumed safety of their homes. My brother-in-law gave me a concealable audio recorder for my keychain to use in any confrontations with the police I may have, telling me that I’ll have something to use in the case that the police get violent with me.
These are tactics of survival, ways that Black people are adapting to their environment instead of addressing the issue because survival prioritizes life instead of change, for Black life, ultimately, is revolutionary, is resistance.
But what both infuriates me to no end and brings me almost tremblingly to tears is the notion that we must try to survive.