Like many people, my husband and I spent the Sunday evenings in April & May at our house watching “The Last Dance.” My husband came of age during Michael Jordan’s prime and although MJ was important to most American basketball fans (and indeed many fans around the world), he had a special significance for Black men who grew up in impoverished circumstances. Michael, like Barack or LeBron or Jay-Z, represented the possibility of transcendence. They epitomized Black male humanity on a global stage and the world loved them. They had excelled beyond what most believed was possible and constituted their own fraternity of Black male magic.
These figures were more than just lofty promises from school teachers that you can be anything you want or empty assurances that your future was bright. These Black men, born and raised in America, with their own stories of otherness, were tangible representations of unimaginable heights. My husband, like many other Black men who became teenagers and young adults in the 80s and 90s, idolized Michael Jordan and we have watched, every Sunday, from start to finish, sometimes more than once, with rapt attention as ESPN has shared his story and the story of the 1990s Bulls.
During one of the later episodes they explored the death of Jordan’s father and the impact his death had on Jordan’s game. Despite being relatively young when his father passed away (I was only 6), I was surprised that I didn’t recall how horrific the details of his death had been. James Jordan had been shot to death, robbed, and his body tossed in a creek. I began wondering how differently his death would’ve been publicized if there had been social media back then.
I wondered if there would’ve been hashtags, loving stories of James Jordan at Michael’s elementary games, and calls for justice. That last part led me to wonder about the race of the murderers. I did a basic Google search and determined that one of the assailants was Black and the other seemed to be a person of color albeit somewhat racially ambiguous. It may seem odd to some, but I surmised as much from the coverage of the murder featured in the ESPN documentary.
First, studies show that people are most likely to be victims of crimes committed by people of their same race. Secondly, my understanding of Jordan’s background is that he grew up in rural, poorer parts of North Carolina, likely populated with other Black folk like him, and that his father frequently went back there to visit friends, or, in this case, attend a funeral. Thirdly, justice was swift. Reports indicated that the teenage perpetrators were captured almost immediately, quickly arrested and charged and prosecutors sought the harshest possible penalty allowable in NC. Finally, there were no reports of invidious racial tension coloring the encounter. Its motivations were purely pecuniary. The assailants robbed and murdered James Jordan in search of monetary gain.
Those last two reasons (justice was swift and there was no obvious racial tension) are most germane for purposes of this article. After I reflected on the facts of Jordan’s murder, I resigned that there would have been an outpouring of support and sympathy for Michael on Facebook, floods of childhood pictures on Instagram, but not attended by the same level of outrage as when unarmed Blacks are murdered by law enforcement or vigilante crusaders “protecting” their neighborhood. I wanted to think more critically about how these two scenarios are different.
Both involve the horrific loss of life. Both frequently involve guns. Both involve losing Black fathers (and often mothers too!), grandfathers, husbands and people who are integral to their communities. Why not the equal level of outrage? I’m aware that this surface sentiment is regularly offered up by people attempting to derail Black outcry against the disproportional slayings at the hands of law enforcement and vigilante justice.
Unfortunately, I did not have to look far for appropriate case studies to juxtapose. During the same week that this episode of “The Last Dance” aired, social media was ablaze after a video surfaced of a Black man gunned down by vigilantes during his afternoon jog.
Ahmaud Arbery was jogging near Brunswick, GA when two white men with guns chased Arbery in their pick-up truck (even the imagery reeks of Klan tactics), commanded him to stop, then shot him to death when he failed to comply. What was even more shocking about the case was that the murder had taken place months earlier and there still had not been any arrests or charges despite video evidence revealing the identity of the perpetrators. In fact, the district attorney originally handling the case (after the first DA recused herself), characterized it as a “justifiable homicide” and instructed law enforcement (just as the first DA allegedly did) not to effectuate any arrests.
Travis and Gregory McMichael (hereafter “the McMichaels”) claim to have murdered Ahmuad because he fit the description of a burglary suspect from a string of burglaries in the area. This explanation, however, subsequently proved to be unfounded as there had not been any burglaries for almost two months when Ahmuad was killed and, even then, the only burglary had been reported by the McMichaels themselves with no description of a suspect. They saw him, imputed criminality to him, retrieved their guns, chased him while having a neighbor tail them in another vehicle, gave Ahmaud orders, then shot and killed him while hurling racial slurs as Ahmaud lie dying.
There is something extra here. Something besides just death robbing the racially oppressed of our humanity. It’s that essence – the essence of our embattled humanity above and beyond just the ultimate seizure of our bodies – that engenders the outrage, the disgust, the divorce from and refused reconciliation with farce patriotism, the grim acknowledgement that our country and countrymen are still rife with the historical racism that will kill us and declare it justified, the connection and camaraderie of Blacks on social media during times of national mourning who are otherwise strangers; all of whom know poignantly that anyone of us, or those that we love, could be next. It is also this essence that’s absent from other terrible murders like the one that befell James Jordan.
Compounding this is that this is not the first time the Black community has been shaken by this kind of righteous racial violence and subsequent bungled handling by legal authorities. If it happens once, it could be a mistake. If it happens repeatedly, it is a deliberate choice. Trayvon Martin’s case, which sparked national outcry in 2012 and helped galvanize the BLM movement, is eerily similar. The similarities extend beyond the facts attending the murder but also in how authorities handled it. Let’s unpack these nuances more thoroughly.
First, the circumstances leading up to the murder are themselves a source of outrage. The belief that you are entitled to confront someone by virtue of their mere presence in “your” neighborhood and your determination that they do not belong is rife with white privilege and an inherited sense of entitlement. Even the belief that you are best positioned to make determinations about who belongs where and are vested with the authority to act on those determinations is a function of American whiteness. Consider the following.
As far back as slavery, whites have had the right to determine if Blacks were on public streets legally. Slaves needed permission slips from their masters to leave the plantation and free Blacks needed papers evidencing that they were free (if state law allowed free Blacks to inhabit the state at all). After slavery, convict leasing functioned similarly to ensure that Blacks were not allowed to be on the streets without employment paperwork (otherwise you could be charged with vagrancy, arrested, and sentenced to hard labor) and even with employment, Blacks were often picked up for “crimes” such as loitering. After convict leasing, Jim Crow erected social norms and laws that made these practices ubiquitous. Sundown laws prevented Blacks from being in a certain part of town (or in that town at all) after sunset. Black lands were commandeered without compensation or explanation, whites filed nuisance suits in an attempt to evict Black neighbors (the nuisance listed in the suit was that the neighbors were Black), red lining, restrictive covenants, and governmental policies relegated Blacks to the worse neighborhoods in town and created urban inner-city ghettos.
We’re talking literal centuries of a white authoritative interest in the regulation of where Black people could physically exist. This country’s societal foundation is undergirded by the historic ability of whites of all walks of life to control the movements of Black people and determine which spaces they were allowed to occupy. That ability was buttressed by the capacity of whites to punish, with impunity, those Blacks believed to run afoul these customs. These sentiments, deeply entrenched in the minds and habits of the populace, don’t just evaporate when legislation passes, and their progeny find voice in behaviors like those exhibited by the McMichaels.
Second, the injury of the crime is exacerbated by its hasty attachment to legality. Beyond just regulating conduct, our laws articulate our societal values. They are supposed to be the standard with which we measure rectitude. Saying something is legal is saying it was correct, justifiable, and acceptable. Saying that something is legal is saying that, in that moment, the actor expressed our democratic principles.
In an overwhelming majority of cases where unarmed Black people are killed by white officers and white vigilantes, our laws protect them. Our laws elevate their crimes from reprehensible behavior to, at best, a neutral legal act while casting the victim into a figurative ditch of collateral consequences or, at worst, an act of heroism while portraying the victim as a deserved criminal. Criminality is so heavily imputed to Blackness and innocence with whiteness that even in instances where an apparent crime has been committed by a white person against a Black person, on film, authorities rush to conclude that the Black person must have been acting illegally and the white person legally. The Black person’s past, every crime (real or imagined), every bad decision, every terrible picture and social media post are relentlessly scrutinized for evidence that they deserved what happened to them. This doesn’t happen nearly as often or as viciously in murders committed by Blacks against Blacks, in part because there’s no need to justify the shooter’s behavior. Law enforcement gladly takes him down.
Third, it brings to light the stark differences between how whites and Blacks who arm themselves are regarded. White people arm themselves, start masquerading as cops, even form sloppy militias and are welcomed as an unofficial extension of local law enforcement. When Blacks relish in their 2nd Amendment rights or attempt to organize around bearing arms or protecting their neighborhoods, they are not met with such enthusiasm. In fact, the only time the NRA has supported a ban on assault rifles is when the Black Panthers stormed the state capital with them.
Finally, the mental gymnastics with which law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges employ to avoid prosecuting and convicting these murderers is nothing short of astounding and adds to the outrage. As a defense attorney, I have seen crimes charged, grand jury indictments handed down, and probable cause found based on the flimsiest of evidence. I once had a client charged with “Having Weapons While Under Disability” (which just means that a prohibited person (with a felony conviction) possessed a gun), a felony, for appearing in a YouTube video with what appeared to be a gun. The state had no evidence that it wasn’t a prop. Law enforcement did not recover the gun in the course of their investigation. No one knew when the video was filmed (only when it was posted). We made it all the way to the day of trial, after I advised him to refuse ever plea offer the state made, before the state dismissed the case. I have countless examples like this but yet, with an actual body, an actual gun, a video and/or eyewitness of/to the incident, law enforcement struggle to find probable cause, prosecutors fail to obtain indictments, judges (who you should think of as referees for purposes of trial) make terrible rulings and no conviction results.
Black people do more than just observe these habits. We feel it. We feel it like an ache from an old injury. It reminds us of Emmett, of Medgar, of Trayvon, of Tamir, of Sandra, of Oscar, of Eric and of so many others who could fill these pages.
These extras distinguish these atrocities from regular murder and warrant additional outrage. Warrant hashtags. Warrant protests. Warrant organizing. Warrant an incessant rage. These extras should bear in mind when you fix your lips to ask “what about” another Black death at the hands of someone from within their racial group.
I originally wrote this article before George Floyd’s murder sparked an international movement against police brutality and reignited the American movement for Black lives. I just left it lying around in my computer. Since Floyd’s death, however, this false narrative about “Black on Black crime”, continues to buoy to the surface and is a distraction proffered by those who want to undermine the advancing cause against police brutality. It has to be put to rest.
First, there. is. NO. such. thing. as “Black on Black crime.” Full stop. That’s a framing. It’s an intentional framing meant to suggest that violence is endemic in the Black community. As already stated, victims of crime are most likely to be victimized by people of their own race/ethnicity. White people commit crimes against other white people. Hispanic people commit crimes against other Hispanic people, and so on and so forth. Even with that as the reality, the framing generates a perception that Black people committing crime against other Black people is unique among racial groups. It is not and yet you still don’t hear phrases like “white on white crime”. That is deliberate. There’s no societal interest served by dehumanizing whites or the communities they emerge from. Concerns about “Black on Black crime” should really just be a concern about crime which should really just be a concern about inner-city poverty because studies show that’s the major contributing factor. All of this is materially different from the police, those charged with our protection, killing unarmed citizens.
That last point segues nicely into this one: there’s added injury when the murderer is a cop. Police believe themselves to be the “peacemakers”. Society at large regards them as the “good guys”; solidified in our collective memory through the contrast posited by their theme song “bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” And yet, throughout America’s history, they have never aligned with the Black struggle for freedom. In fact, quite the opposite has been true. In the days of slavery, they were the slave patrols that quelled our attempts at insurrection and dragged us back to the enslavers when we ran. During the days of convict leasing, they enforced the flimsy “laws” that funneled us back into chains. During Jim Crow, they failed to protect us from the lynch mobs, often participated in the extralegal violence against us, and ensured that we did not run afoul the laws and customs that segregated and oppressed us. During the civil rights movement, law enforcement disrupted peaceful marches and helped cover up the murders of prominent civil rights activists. When we turned to Black power and armed ourselves for protection from the racial terror that cops allowed to run rampant, we were hyper-policed. During the war on drugs, cops were on the front lines and have been a driving force behind mass incarceration. Today, Blacks are almost three times as likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. Despite these truths, society cloaks cops with a presumption of rectitude, jurors layer credibility onto their testimony that locks us away, and they brutalize us with impunity while being incessantly hostile to any notion of reform.
This level of power, of state-sanctioned authority, of sacrosanct heroism cannot be equated to the gang member retaliating to a drive-by shooting. No. Demand more. Greater responsibility attends greater power. Further, in Black communities where gun violence is rampant, those communities are doing something, so stop with the false narratives. I’ve seen comments like “why aren’t you this upset when a black person kills?”. You have to read, Karen. You have to exert effort to get real information because relying on an insulated loop on social media or a single news source, won’t get you an expansive worldview. Those communities do have marches against violence. They do start programs and organizations dedicated to curbing gun violence. Your lack of awareness does not equal a lack of existence and says more about your limited exposure to people who are different from you than it does to suggest insincere motives in our protests. A better question is where are the “good cops” starting programs to end police brutality? Stop undermining the justified demands that cops stop killing Black people by pointing to a fictitious racist trope. The inhumanity, the indignity, the historical racial trauma adds injury above just the death.