In the aftermath of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it became “open season” on black men in America. “Separate But Equal,” as de jure segregation law, legitimized the exclusion of black people from private and public spaces. What followed was over a half century of terror and turmoil. The politics of Plessy, separate spaces based on race spread throughout the South. And to the North. And to the West. The enforcement of Plessy spread nationwide. Thus, “Jim Crow” became law and culture. And Jim Crow was enforced legally, extralegally and illegally. The culture backed it—and used the law to support public sentiment.
There was a dramatic rise in lynchings in America at the turn of the 20th Century.
Lynching became so commonplace that people didn’t even pay attention to them after a while. From 1987 to 1934, lynchings numbered at least one a week. In some years, almost two a week. The great 20th Century scholar, W.E.B. DuBois, disturbed by the “nonchalant-ness” of the news of a lynching, began hanging a black flag outside the NAACP’s New York headquarters window. The flag had a message on it. The message read;
“A Man Was Lynched Today.”
It took 68 years to overturn Plessy. Though “Separate But Equal” law was overturned in 1954 with the Brown decision (although enforcement of the Brown decision is still questionable) and 10 years of massive resistance occurred before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enforced the reversal of Plessy. Yet even after the Civil Rights Act, some states still resisted. Dr. King, Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy were killed in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This period we call the Civil Rights era, which—except for the Civil War—was the most volatile in American history. Both periods had to do with African Americans and their quest for equality.
Well, on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put an end to the nation’s last prevailing race law, we’re entering another period of prevailing race law. It’s called “Stand Your Ground” law. The case law is The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. Just as we once lived in the era of Plessy, we know live in the era of Zimmerman.
It’s an era of legalized murder that public sentiment is endorsing—on several levels.
Since Zimmerman, the law has been tested again. In fact, with “Stand Your Ground” in some 22 states, it’s been tested some dozen times since the death of Trayvon Martin. As a young attorney pointed out on a recent panel I was on, just as many black people are now using “Stand Your Ground” as a legal defense as all others. However, the law wasn’t written for all people.
Black males are about to find this out. Some already have.
The state of Florida has struck again. This time in probably the most egregious way. Called the “Loud Music” murder trial, defendant Michael Dunn, killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis when he shot NINE times into a car because the car’s four occupants refused to turn the music down. Three of those shots were fired as the car was speeding away—fleeing the scene.
Dunn said he saw a gun and he feared for his life. No gun was ever found.
The jury found Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing a gun into an occupied vehicle. But the jury couldn’t agree on the first degree murder count. The judge finally threw it out, declaring a mistrial. The jury initially refused to talk, but the controversy was over whether or not Davis tried to get out of the car to get at Dunn.
The judge wouldn’t let the jury see the dummy that mapped the trajectory of the bullets that struck Davis. So the argument that Dunn “feared for his life” was allowed to remain a possibility. Never mind they never found a gun. A citizen, without the collar of authority (as in the Zimmerman case) and without a physical altercation (as in the Zimmerman case), was legally allowed to shoot another citizen. Zimmerman case law (without a retrial) has just been expanded.
More troubling was the public’s response to the decision. There literally was none.
The outrage was muted—almost expected. None of the rallies, the protests, the posturing—or pretense—of the Trayvon Martin case where there was no limit to the outrage. Because—in the end—no law was broken. The law was tested and our criminal justice system had spoken. America, as a nation of laws, has operated this way for 226 years.
Only the most conscious of us understood what had happened in the Zimmerman case. HOPEFULLY, more of us recognize what has just happened in the Dunn murder case.
It represents a solidification of what we knew would happen again. We knew after the Trayvon Martin murder that Stand Your Ground would be tested again, and a black male would be at the center of the test. It was just a matter of time before Zimmerman (who was “Hispanic”) case law would be tested in “black and white.” Race is more than a coincidence in Dunn’s case.
Black and white is at the core of America’s racial history.
“Stand Your Ground” is the new “Separate But Equal.” Whether it’s a hoodie or loud music (which we all play in our cars), racism is the motive and fear is now just the justification.
We don’t have to see this too many more times. We know what the outcomes are—the justice system will uphold a jury interpretation of the law. Stand Your Ground is not just a stand against imminent and approaching danger. It is not an act of last resort. It is an act of first resort.
It is a stand for encroaching racism—with a legal defense, a new open season on black males. Black males have always been social targets. This is just the latest iteration—the latest evolution—of anti-social legislation against black males. It’s 21st Century Negrophobia.
Now that we know what it is, now what?
How long will it take the nation to overturn Zimmerman case law?
Now that we know we’re in a new era of race law.