US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The Michael Dunn trial verdict sparks renewed debate over racial injustice

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The issue of racial injustice raised its ugly head again this week in the wake of the Michael Dunn trial. And like the jurors in the trial, we yet again seem deadlocked on the question of whether race plays a role in our criminal justice system.

For those not following the trial, the jury couldn’t reach a decision on the murder charge levied against Dunn for firing his gun at a group of teenagers in an SUV at a gas station in 2012, killing 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis in the process. He was convicted of attempted murder for firing at the other teens and will potentially spend 60 years in prison as a result. But the jury couldn’t agree on whether the killing of Davis was an act of self-defense on the part of Dunn.

As one of the jurors has now revealed, the group was deadlocked from the start because some believed Dunn was entirely justified in shooting Davis, who he believed posed a threat to him. Dunn claims Davis had a gun, though no evidence of one was found. What we do know is that Dunn and the teenagers had an argument over the loud music they were playing in their car, which they refused to turn down at Dunn’s request. In other words, they were acting like a bunch of teenagers.

Much like last year’s jury decision in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the debate quickly turned to questions about race. Michael Dunn wasn’t just a man who felt threatened by a group of teenagers and shot at them in self-defense, he was a white man shooting at black teenagers. African American writers like Jamelle Bouie at The Daily Beast and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic have already argued that under the law, feeling threatened by someone because of their race can be seen as a justifiable reason for shooting them. And as Jim Wallis of Soujourners writes, “Not only do Stand Your Ground laws institutionally legitimize racism by mostly white men carried out against mostly black men, instead of reconciliation and peace, gun violence and racial fears are allowed to win the day.”

In an interview on NPR, Coates noted that Jordan Davis’ mother had warned her son about his behavior. “It's not like we didn't have a conversation about how to comport himself when he's out,” she told Coates. “But that boy ... is 17 years old. You can't say that the way to not get killed is to have the maturity of a 45-year-old.”

That's really the key point in this debate--no one is saying Jordan Davis was a perfectly behaved young man, even his own mother. But immature behavior by teenagers isn't a reason to shoot them, and for those who argue that this case was all about race, the question is whether Michael Dunn would have felt threatened by a group of white teenagers who refused to turn down their music and got into a shouting match with him. Would he have pulled out his gun and fired at them, or just grumbled about "kids these days" and walked off?

Coates definitely thinks there is a double standard when it comes race. “You're not requiring that (mature behavior) of white young men. Seventeen-year-old white men. That is racism,” he says.

There's no way to know for sure if Jordan Davis' race was a primary factor in Dunn shooting him, or if it weighed on the jury's belief that Dunn was justified in feeling threatened. But whether racism still exists in our justice system—and whether there’s any way to weed it out—are the bigger questions that need to be discussed.