‘Stand Your Ground’: Self-Defense For Some, Just Another Threat For Black Americans
In February, director and Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker visited New York City’s Milano Market. Even though he has a net worth of $15 million and is one of the most prolific actors working today, he was stopped and patted down publicly by a store employee who accused him of shoplifting. The deli, which is regularly frequented by celebrities, acknowledges that the incident happened and has apologized, but denies that race played a role.
“The management of Milano Market deeply regrets the wrongful actions of our employee in stopping and frisking Forest Whitaker,” a representative of the store told TMZ. “While we can not delve into the employee’s mindset, we do not believe that he was racially motivated in his actions, simply misguided.”
For most African-Americans, these “misguided actions” tend to be too common to be coincidental. While many Americans pride themselves on not being explicitly racist, a growing rash of implicit racism has emerged that fundamentally has affected the way that the nation looks at the Black population.
Being treated differently
In his keynote address before the NAACP’s annual convention in Orlando, Fla., U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke personally of his struggles with the “misguided actions” he had to deal with.
“[Our] country has indeed changed for the better. The fact that I stand before you as the 82nd attorney general of the United States, serving in the administration of our first African-American president, proves that,” Holder said.
“The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago … Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy.”
The attorney general also shared his experience of being stopped by the police when he was running to catch a movie at night. He was a federal prosecutor at the time.
The attorney general challenged “stand your ground” laws — which are currently in effect in 33 states — for encouraging confrontation instead of avoiding it.
“But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely,” Holder said. “By allowing — and perhaps encouraging — violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.”
The National Rifle Association took Holder to task on this point, stating that Holder fails to acknowledge and understand the right to self-defense.
However, many feel that Holder simply pointed out the elephant in the room. According to a 2012 Associated Press poll, a majority of all Americans — 56 percent — have implicit anti-Black sentiments. What this means is that for the majority of all Americans, when considering or analyzing a situation involving African-Americans, a negative non-conscious bias, assumption or expectation comes into play that sours perceptions in a way that would not have occurred if the situation involved someone who is White. The practical implication is that seemingly racist actions and thoughts come from individuals who personally do not see themselves as racist.
Life under racism
Under “stand your ground” laws, where there is no requirement to withdraw, a person may misread an incident with an African-American and act out on this misperception, comfortable in the knowledge that they will not be held liable for their “misguided action.” This, in effect, creates a “disposable” class of people.
The reality that a Black person will be treated differently and seen differently than a White person has became an accepted fact of life, taught to African-American children at a young age.
“We all have various conversations with our children about the fact that they’re not going to be treated fairly necessarily in school,” said Dr. Camille Charles, professor of sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s really no other way to understand what’s happening here except that that child is black and we don’t expect black children to excel.”
The current legislation of implicit racism has created a situation in which challenges to policy are seen as a questioning not of action, but of philosophy. An example of this was seen last month when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on the record to defend “stop and frisk”.
“One newspaper and one news service, they just keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be. But it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murders,” Bloomberg said, according to the New York Daily News.
“In that case, incidentally, I think, we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” the mayor said. “It’s exactly the reverse of what they’re saying. I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course, or a logic course.”
This is despite the New York Civil Liberties Union finding that only 11 percent of all stops in 2011 were based on a description of a violent crime suspect.
For many African-Americans, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin is a raw spot because many can see themselves in the same situation, under the same circumstances. Racism is a real, tangible part of the American psyche, and it will persist as long as it is ignored and not discussed.
“The truth is that for those of you who’ve lost in the battle for justice, wherever that fits in any part of the world, we can’t bring them back,” said Grammy Award winner Stevie Wonder, who has announced he will boycott all “stand your ground” states. “What we can do is we can let our voices be heard. And we can vote in our various countries throughout the world for change and equality for everybody. That’s what I know we can do.”
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