Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why are black murder victims put on trial?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 4:27 PM EST, Fri November 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Renisha McBride, black teen, was shot dead after knocking on a white homeowner's door
  • Family says she needed help; homeowner says he feared she was breaking in
  • LZ: If a black man said he shot unarmed white girl in the face in "self defense" he would be in jail
  • LZ: Our culture "looks at a black corpse and puts it, instead of the perpetrator, on trial"

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is a senior writer for ESPN as well as a lecturer at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Renisha McBride's toxicology report is out and now we know the 19-year-old had a blood-alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit for driving. This would explain why, according to her family, she was involved in a single-car accident.

However, it does not explain why Theodore Wafer shot her in the face.

McBride's family says she was seeking help after the crash and knocked on the door of Wafer's house in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The 54-year-old Wafer, who is white, told investigators he feared McBride, who is black, was trying to break in.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

There are too many unanswered questions to know exactly what happened that night. But we do know this: If a black man told police officers "self-defense" was the reason why he shot an unarmed white teenage girl in the face with his shotgun, it would not have taken protests, national media attention and nearly two weeks for authorities to reject that excuse.

And this is why McBride's death -- ruled a homicide after protests and national media attention -- draws comparisons to that of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who is of white and Latino heritage, last year.

Not that the events leading up to their shootings are identical. They are not.

But statistics show the benefit of doubt granted to those who have spilled black blood is not extended as graciously when roles are reversed. In other words, if someone told you a black man stalked, confronted and eventually murdered an unarmed white teenage boy, it's doubtful "self-defense" would get him off the hook.

And it shouldn't, because that sounds ridiculous.

But when the victim is black, the narrative that has historically characterized blacks as a menace -- the narrative that gets supported by out-of-context crime statistics, pop culture imagery and media coverage -- assigns culpability and thus plausibility.

Ebony Magazine: "We Are Trayvon"
Trayvon's mother: Use my tragedy
Feds reportedly meet with Martin family

On Friday, Wafer was finally charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. We're finally on the road to finding out the truth, and perhaps even achieving justice for McBride. But will another high-profile, racially charged murder trial get us any closer to debunking the strain of thinking that places "fear for one's life" and an unarmed, dead black person in the same scenario far too often?

This is the same idea that says it's completely reasonable for the NYPD to continue to "stop and frisk" — a practice that disproportionately targets black people, despite its resulting in confiscation of a gun one-tenth of one percent of the time.

It's the idea that says two police officers, who fired 15 shots at an unarmed, 60-year-old black man in his own driveway, are the victims.

It's the idea that says there's no need to quickly make an arrest -- even though McBride's unarmed body is lying in a pool of blood and the nearby weapon is still warm -- because the killer may have "acted as a reasonable person would who was in fear for his life," as Cheryl Carpenter, the lawyer of the alleged shooter, claims.

Between 2005 and 2010, an Urban Institute study, using FBI data, found that white-on-black shootings were found to be justified 11.5% of the time in states that don't have stand-your-ground laws and 17% of the time in those that do -- the highest among all combinations. Black-on-white homicides were ruled to be justified 1% of the time in stand-your-ground states and even less frequently in states without the law.

Now, obviously statistics don't reveal the circumstances surrounding each shooting, but they do reinforce the narrative that black people are inherently more dangerous.

Thus Pasadena police were found "justified" in killing a black, unarmed 19-year-old college student who was falsely accused of robbery. Los Angeles police who shot and killed an unarmed black, autistic 27-year-old did so "in defense of their lives" according to their attorneys.

It's the same fear that led four police officers to fire 41 shots at an unarmed black man on the stoop of his New York apartment in 1999, hitting him 19 times. It's the same fear that led an officer to shoot and kill an unarmed 24-year-old black man who, like McBride, was reportedly in a single car accident and went out looking for help earlier this year.

You can tell yourself all these stories are just tragic one-offs if it makes you feel better. Parents of black children don't have the luxury.

Sure, there are plenty of examples of blacks committing crimes but how does that justify pre-emptive strikes? How does that make substituting "open season" with "self-defense", OK?

I remember something former NFL player Dhani Jones once told me: "A lot of upper-middle-class black people hear reports about a black athlete and assume he's guilty. ... If he's innocent, they'll see it more as a special case than the norm."

This attitude extends to society as a whole.

Assuming black people are inherently up to no good is not just something some white people are guilty of. There are blacks who are leery of blacks as well. That is the power of the narrative.

That is the subtlety of institutionalized racism. It doesn't wear a hood or burn crosses in a yard. Rather it's the subconscious element of our culture that looks at a black corpse and quietly puts it, instead of the perpetrator, on trial.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT