Skip to main content

Florida shooter saw black, thought 'threat'

By Carol Anderson
updated 9:13 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Dunn says he was justified in killing black teen because he felt threatened
  • Carol Anderson: Dunn thinks he's a victim even though teens had no weapons
  • She names Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell -- all gunned down
  • She says "white" is seen as innocent, "black" carries presumption of being a thug

Editor's note: Carol Anderson is associate professor of African American Studies and History at Emory University and a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project. She is the author of "Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights" (Cambridge, 2003).

(CNN) -- In "Stand Your Ground" Florida, Michael Dunn said he felt threatened by a car full of teens playing loud music and pumped about 10 rounds from his 9 mm pistol into their SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. There were, of course, no return shots, because the teens were unarmed. Dunn is white, and all the teens in the car were black. He didn't bother to call the police afterward.

Dunn, 47, is on trial, charged with murder.

He took the stand Monday, detailing how he was pulled up at a gas station when he asked the teens to turn down the music -- "rap crap" he called it. Through the teenagers' tinted windows he saw menace, someone reaching for something.

"You're not going to kill me, you son of a b***h," Dunn recalled saying as he reached for his loaded gun in his glove box. And he only "stopped firing when it appeared the threat was over."

Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson

Under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which could be used in this case, you are granted immunity from criminal and civil charges -- even if you didn't first try to retreat -- if you can show you had a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm or death. And reasonable is up to interpretation.

A 2012 study by The Urban Institute found that in the "Stand Your Ground" states, when white shooters kill black people, "34% of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable. Only 3% of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white." And Dunn feels justified.

"I am NOT a murderer," Dunn has said. Instead, he has taken on the mantle of victimhood and claimed, "I am a survivor."

Dunn saw black and Dunn saw "threat." And he still does.

He wrote, while awaiting trial, "This jail is full of blacks, and they all act like thugs. ... This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these **** idiots when they're threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior."

But it's not just the vigilantes. In January, Philadelphia police determined that a group of African American teens wearing hats and scarves in 13 degree weather looked "suspicious." The resulting stop and frisk led to the crushed testicles of a straight-A student who was simply on his way to a high school basketball game. He is now in a wheelchair.

Jordan Davis was 17 when he was gunned down and killed in his SUV.
Jordan Davis was 17 when he was gunned down and killed in his SUV.
Michael Dunn, 47, is on trial on a murder charge in the shooting and killing of Jordan Davis, 17.
Michael Dunn, 47, is on trial on a murder charge in the shooting and killing of Jordan Davis, 17.

Recently, researchers at Stanford University conducted studies where police and others, cued with an image of a black person, quickly deciphered very blurred images often associated with crime, such as a gun. White people see an African American, and they're immediately looking for something illegal. They almost instantly see a threat.

Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and the scores of other unarmed African Americans gunned down because the killers felt threatened make that clear.

Still, there's another story. The toll that the assumption of white innocence has on public safety is rarely examined.

For example, years ago in Wisconsin, one of Jeffrey Dahmer's young victims ran naked, bleeding and screaming into the arms of Milwaukee's finest. But the serial killer's blond hair worked like pixie dust: The officers ignored the pleas of several African American women, who begged the police to protect the child and get him to safety. Instead, the cops took Dahmer's word that this frail 14-year-old Asian American boy was really a consenting adult and handed the child back over to the cannibal.

For most Americans, danger doesn't look like Jeffrey Dahmer. The second part of the same study at Stanford affirmed it.

Researchers found when they flashed pictures of whites to police and others, subsequent fuzzy images linked to crime remained a blur for a lot longer. In the Rorschach psyche of America, the words "white" and "crime" are not synonymous.

This means that authorities are slow to recognize the threat even of serial killers and certainly by gun-toting shooters in neighborhoods, malls, schools, and airports -- if they're white.

The ability of white skin to mask a threat was evident in Atlanta last year. In October, a white man pulled up to an elementary school and breezed through an elaborate security system while packing multiple guns, including an AK-47, and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition. Eight hundred children scrambled out of the building and a SWAT team set up outside. Then, Michael Brandon Hill pointed his gun out the school window and started shooting.

As dramatic as the shootings may be, the assumption of white innocence has a more widespread, corrosive effect on the criminal justice system and society. The New York Police Department has documented evidence that the relatively small number of whites who were stopped and frisked accounted for nearly twice as many illegal firearms and one-third more contraband than blacks or Latinos.

Still, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormick instructed his officers to target African Americans. "I don't have any trouble telling you this," he said, "male blacks 14 to 20, 21." In other words, where the presumption of white innocence is concerned, facts carry much less weight than perception.

Similarly, whites and Hispanics are two-thirds of all crack users in the United States; yet, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 79% of sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were black. As journalist Saki Knafo noted, "When it comes to illegal drug use, white America does the crime, black America gets the time."

Law professor Jonathan Simon wrote about the ways that the American obsession with crime has created "a culture of fear." Yet, any sense of real safety and security will continue to elude this nation as long black is the default threat setting in America.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carol Anderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT