This may not even be an essay. Already it feels more like an elegy — not just for Jordan Davis, or Trayvon Martin, or their parents, whose black sons’ lives have so little value in the eyes of the American justice system. This feels like an elegy for fairness: a lament read at the funeral of “right” and “good” and “humane.”
Because these things must be dead. I struggle to find proof that they’re living. George Zimmerman invades our daily consciousness, his arrogance taking up more and more space as the likes of CNN, who apparently know no shame, offer him an interview to tell “his side of the story.” I know what story he’ll tell: it’s the same story that Michael Dunn has been telling. The one where an adult man can claim to have been afraid of a 17-year-old kid and everyone will nod sagely and understand because that kid was black. We know that the reverse of this would be seen as silly. What if an adult black man had shot and killed a 17-year-old white boy for playing his rock music too loud, claiming it made him afraid? Everyone would smirk. Black men are tough, the racist narrative goes. Tough. “Thugs.” What does a black man have to be afraid of?
Everything, I would say. Everything. Just read the headlines.
A black man need not only fear a car accident, like any other human being, but he must also fear being shot while asking for help, as we saw with Jonathan Ferrell. The same goes for black women — the family of Renisha McBride will tell you.
Elegies have been written for these families, their lost children. But I am writing an elegy for fairness, for what their deaths mean, because they mean more than funerals. They mean more than black veils and sad songs. Their deaths mean our death, a collective slow withering of the soul. We are a country where a man can be convicted of the lives he attempted to take, but not the one he did take. We are a country where a man can shoot ten rounds into a car of teenagers, then go home, order pizza, take a nap — and face no justice. And in this we are dying. In this our humanity crumbles. We made these laws. We enforce these laws.
And with these laws, we tell black children that white men can kill them for any reason at all. The mythical laws of respectability do not apply. A black child can have one parent or two. A black child can wear a hoodie or a blouse. A black child can have trouble with the law or no history of arrest. Living in this country, I have learned the equation, seen the common denominator: blackness, and only that, is what links these victims together. It is not the music, or the hat, or the pants, or the name. It is the skin, and the emotions it incites.
I say “emotions” instead of “fear” intentionally, for it was not fear that caused Michael Dunn to get out of his car and fire his gun 10 times. It was anger.
“You’re not going to talk to me that way!” Dunn yelled at Jordan Davis and his friends, according to witness testimony. And with those words, America’s racism rears up in my vision: a white man demanding that black youths respect and obey him. When they would not — for they were under no obligation to do so — he tried to kill them. He did kill one. “You’re not going to talk to me that way” reminds me acutely of America’s not so distant past, in which black Americans were warned to never “sass” a white person. “Don’t talk back,” as if every white man everywhere is an authority figure based on the sheer fact of his whiteness. Mr. Dunn can talk all he wants about imaginary guns he thought he saw that never appeared, but the fact of the matter is this: Michael Dunn was angry, and in his anger — his anger at being defied — he took a life.
Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman, aside from being killers, have something else in common: a terrifying sense of entitlement that tells them black boys like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are interlopers. Strangers. Outsiders. Others. The Michael Dunns of the world believe that black boys’ music, their clothes, their language, their skin, do not belong, and are subject to white dictation at any time. It’s their inherited white supremacy that tells them black boys “are not going to talk to [them] that way.” It’s been often said, and I will say it again: this mentality is distinctly similar to Jim Crow and apartheid laws, where free black people were still expected to comply with and obey white expectations at any given time. Noncompliance meant death. Means death. Now. For noncompliance meant the death of both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
We are a nation that kills black boys. We are a nation where being black — and nothing more; your blackness alone — is an act of defiance. What if Jordan Davis had turned his music down and said “Yes, sir” the way the Michael Dunns of the world fantasize? Would it have changed his fate? Perhaps. But it also would have contributed to the belief of a man that his whiteness means authority; that his whiteness means obey; that his whiteness means be silent, don’t speak, you are an Other. Jordan Davis is dead because he would not comply. His parents weep because he would not comply. And the worst part is, he didn’t have to. Jordan Davis, a black youth, did not have to comply with the wishes of a white man. The jury would not convict Dunn on the count of murder because somewhere in their minds they believed that Davis violated the unspoken rule of white supremacy and black inferiority.
Other black children will die as long as white supremacy reigns, as it surely does, but what are the alternatives? How do parents of black children protect their babies? By telling them to be silent before white people? Don’t talk back to white people? Keep your music low. Keep your head down.
Surely not. To do so would mean stepping backward into Jim Crow. It would mean further sending the message of second-class citizenship, in which white children can live free from the burden of racism while black children grow up stunted and afraid. It’s not fair. And that’s why this is an elegy. Because fairness is dead.
Follow Olivia Cole on Twitter @RantingOwl