This evening Michael Dunn was found guilty of four of the five charges he was facing. Sadly, the one count which the jury failed to reach consensus on was the most important one: the murder of Jordan Davis.
Many of you will be tempted to say this was a victory because Michael Dunn will be going to prison for potentially a considerable amount of time. But that should bring little comfort. You see messages matter and the message that this verdict sends is that you can take the life of an unarmed black teenager as long as you don’t fire at his friends.
By only finding Michael Dunn guilty of the attempted murder of Jordan Davis’ friends the verdict has given life to the idea that black men, just by virtue of being black men, are a reasonable threat. The inherent danger and aggressiveness of Black men is one of the core tenets of white supremacy and provides the ideological foundation upon which white supremacy is built. It has been part of the white public’s imagination forever and is memorialized in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” We have been socialized to simply accept this and all its implications, specifically that Black life does not matter.
You might think this has nothing to do with you. You are wrong.
There is no other group of people in this country with more power and responsibility to dismantle white supremacy than the descendants of Europeans, those we now call white. The reason for this is actually fairly simple: we are the ones who have been asked to buy into the idea of whiteness. And boy have we done just that. Europeans went from working and eating and rebelling side by side with African’s as indentured servants to being the ones rounding up runaway slaves and enforcing whatever the latest iteration of the Fugitive Slave Act was. Europeans didn’t naturally hate those humans with more melanin, but our institutions incentivized and encouraged Europeans to separate themselves from not just African slaves but all people of color (think the granting of land to freed indentured and how that pitted poor Europeans against the Native people).
When our ancestors first stepped foot on this land they were, more often than not, broke and desperate, they came here searching for something better. In fact, they were so desperate that they were willing to pay a steep price for even the hint of an opportunity: their culture. Many of our ancestors quickly learned that their name, their language, their religion, their accent, and their traditions had to change; they learned quickly they had to become American, they had to become white. Teddy Roosevelt was optimistic that this Americanization could be accomplished in two generations. Part of that Americanization was certainly the learning of racism and white supremacy, as Toni Morrison observed: “When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was ‘nigger’.” The legacy of this Americanization is what we now call whiteness: the set of norms and values and traditions that manifest through white supremacy, which marks every aspect of American life. Whiteness, or more accurately the maintenance of whiteness, is why the New Deal programs were largely off limits to people of color and, sadly, why, in 2014, Michael Dunn can say Jordan Davis was a threat while presenting, literally, no supporting evidence and it still hangs a jury.
So what do we do? This is the question that will weigh heavy on people’s hearts, minds, and souls. The answer is: identify differently, socialize ourselves differently. Whiteness is a social construct developed to funnel power—economic, political, and social – into the hands of a limited few. It has been maintained by granting bits and pieces of this power to those who have demonstrated their uncompromising allegiance to this social order. It is time to recognize this and begin divesting, begin resisting. We need to recognize we have more in common with people of color than we do the rich white men that monopolize power. We need to talk and listen in multicultural settings. We need to ask questions when we don’t understand and we need to accept the answers instead of getting defensive. One of the most important things we can do is get back in touch with our cultural selves. When we focus on building culture we will find our commonalities and be better prepared to celebrate our differences. However, none of that matters if we don’t fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves. James Baldwin once said “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you.” We must think of ourselves first and foremost as human beings, one with every other human being on the planet. From here it will be easier to not only accept the realities of white supremacy but to work in a truly authentic way at dismantling those realities.
Yes, Michael Dunn is going to go to prison, but not because he murdered an unarmed, innocent Black teenager. In fact at least one member of the jury believed that Dunn was justified in taking Jordan Davis’ life. This is unacceptable. Plain and simple. Now is not the time for rationalizations or talk of civility and both sides of situations. Now is the time for action. For European-Americans that action needs to be radical and all encompassing. This is the only way there will ever be true justice for the countless people who have lost their lives at the hands of whiteness. Furthermore, until that justice becomes reality there should be no peace.