Theodore Wafer has been found guilty of killing of 19-year old Renisha McBride. However, the 12 men and women who considered the evidence against Wafer are not the only ones wrestling with important questions elevated by this case, such as how Wafer could construe loud banging on a door as an attempt to break in, why Wafer might have immediately suspected that McBride was a threat to his personal safety, what role McBride’s intoxication may have played in the events of that night, or what any legal grounds upon which he was allowed to shoot McBride in the face.
Still haunted by the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial, many on social media are expressed their fear that #JusticeforRenisha would not be an elusive dream and that Wafer is held personally accountable for his actions.
While I am heartened by the guilty verdict (Wafer will be sentenced on August 21st), I’m hoping for something a bit more substantive.
I will resist the urge to compare the murder of McBride in Michigan with that of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis in Florida, because the circumstances under which each was killed were quite different. However, what is indisputable is that the death of Renisha McBride, and the trial for the man who killed her, is our latest opportunity to reconsider laws (e.g., Stand Your Ground) that reinforce the endemic criminalization of Black youth in America.
While our rhetoric overwhelmingly centers males in these discussions about Stand Your Ground-type of laws, Renisha McBride’s killing has highlighted the fact that actions associated with what Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree calls the “presumption of guilt”—a belief that someone is inherently guilty, largely as a function of race—are conditions that also affect Black females.
That is because the conditions under which Black “justifiable” homicides occur are informed by race. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that while the number of justifiable homicides increased by 25.4% between 1999 and 2008, only a quarter of these incidents were inter-racial cases. The majority of justifiable homicides were situations in which the citizen was of the same race as the person killed. That stated, a recent report by the Urban Institute showed that when the shooter is White and older than a Black victim, the likelihood that the shooting will be ruled “justifiable” increases. While there are even more variables that increase the likelihood of a homicide being ruled as “justifiable,” such as both the victim and shooter being male, we know that females are also subjected to a “fear of the Black body” that lives in the public domain and casts Black youth as dangerous.
The cases of McBride, Martin, and Davis—each egregious in their own right—are reflective of a culture that has become all to comfortable with presuming that Black youth are “guilty” (of what, no one is clear) and with casting Black youth as menacing.
By supporting Stand Your Ground-type of laws, policymakers, citizens, and law enforcers are ignoring not only empirical data that suggests that Black people—especially the teenage and young adult ones—are at increased risk of being victimized under these laws. They are also ignoring that America’s ongoing legacy of racial bias reinforces an implicit association between Black youth and violence in a way that perpetuates a fear of the young Black body in the public domain. In other words, society is irrationally afraid of young Black people. Though that is not a politically correct statement, implicit bias is not about what we say we believe, but rather what our brains are conditioned to believe is “true.” If people think Black youth are up to no good—and they consume information that reinforces that idea (through popular culture, reports, anecdotes, stories, etc.)—their first reactions will be aligned with that original thought and not necessarily the ones that are carefully crafted for public interrogation. What we need, to paraphrase Ivory Toldson, are for people to love Black people enough not to believe every bad thing they hear about Black people…and I would add, to challenge laws that undermine the value of Black life based upon those beliefs, even when they claim to be race-neutral.
Ultimately, the ground that must be stood upon is the one we use to justify the repeal of laws that present a pattern of differential outcome and treatment for Black Americans. Stand Your Ground-type of laws undermine Black life (intentionally or not) by presenting a legal framework in which implicit biases against Black youth are allowed to justify behaviors that result in their death—even when no harm has been committed. We must protect our children from the criminalizing gaze of the public—and the even more dangerous actions that are increasingly occurring as a result. Together we must demand justice for Renisha. And for Trayvon. And for Jordan. And for every other child who has been killed by a fear of the Black body.
This story has been updated to reflect the verdict.