The benefit of the doubt is racist

Part of my daily routine involves coming home from the office, getting changed into a t-shirt and gym shorts, jumping on my exercise bike, and (in order to distract myself from how much I fucking hate exercise) turning on The Daily Show. I usually cringe when Jon talks about race matters – for example, he accused Spike Lee of sending “a lynch mob” to the home of an elderly couple whose number Lee mistook for George Zimmerman’s. Pro tip for Jon: maybe when a black man is executed based on his race (especially in the South), you want to avoid making hyperbolic comments about lynching. Despite Jon’s tin ear for racial issues, his correspondents usually handle stories with strong racial components much more adroitly.

Which is why, with a few exceptions, I am always happy to see “Senior black correspondent” Larry Wilmore appear on the program. While he tends to ride the “middle of the road” more than I would, he usually does an adept job dropping knowledge on Jon Stewart’s faux-clueless straight man character*. In discussing the unbelievably stupid backlash against people’s reactions to Trayvon Martin’s killing (replete with the kind of fake outrage and false equivalence that characterizes the right’s desperate attempt to appear less than rabidly racist), Wilmore skewers the argument that people only get outraged when white people kill black people, and that black-on-black violence, while far more frequent, elicits almost no outrage. After pointing out a number of specific outrages about black-on-black violence, Larry says this:

LARRY WILMORE: And number two, the difference between the Trayvon Martin shooting and black-on-black crime is that word crime.  You know, that thing that people getarrested for?  Since the court of public opinion is the only court that will take the case, everyone feels the need to jump in and defend or condemn Zimmerman.  To the right, he’s an unfairly victimized Dudley Do-Right, and to the left, he’s Elmer Fudd hunting down black people.  (in Elmer Fudd voice)  “Shh!  Be vewwy quiet.  I’m wacially pwofiling Negros, hahahahahaha.”

Which is perhaps the point that gets lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t really matter whether or not George Zimmerman was “a racist”. The problem is not that he killed a black man (although, to be sure, that is a problem), the problem is that somehow, hunting down and murdering a 17 year-old kid is treated by the Justice System with a pat on a head and a ride home. There was no crime, and people were justifiably outraged. My favourite part of the bit, the one from which I get the title of this post, is from this exchange:

LARRY WILMORE: Jon, focus.  The point is this.  If we remove accusations of racism, we can finally talk calmly about the racial elements of this story.

JON STEWART: So there is some racial elements in this story, some racism in this story.

LARRY WILMORE: Are you kidding me, Jon?  We had a Hispanic guy with a Jewish name killing a black guy??  It’s gotta be in there somewhere!  I mean, good Lord!  OK, follow me, Jon.  George Zimmerman sees a black guy in a hoodie.  Black guys in hoodies have been reportedly been breaking into homes, so noticing him not racist, maybe a little race-y.

JON STEWART: Ah, but Zimmerman follows him even though the police told him not to.  That’s gotta be race-ish.

LARRY WILMORE: Nah, that’s just stupid.  OK, now after that point, we have different accounts of what happened.  But the one thing we know for sure is Zimmerman killed Trayvon and the police let him go.

JON STEWART: Ah!  So the police were racist….

LARRY WILMORE: Not this time.  They were following the law.  Now according to Stand Your Ground, as long as Zimmerman felt threatened, he had the right to respond with lethal force.

JON STEWART: So Stand Your Ground law is racist.  That is the… I get it now.

LARRY WILMORE: No, you don’t get it, shut up.

JON STEWART: All right.

LARRY WILMORE: With this defense, you don’t even have to go in front of a jury.  You tell the cops at the scene of the crime you were standing your ground, and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.  That’s the culprit.

JON STEWART: Ah-hah!  The benefit of the doubt… is racist!

LARRY WILMORE: Exactly, Jon.  Exactly.

A pretty strong claim, perhaps, but one that fits well in line with the message of this blog: we live in a society in which racism operates at all levels, and failing to understand that will only prop up the status quo of racial inequality. Georgia gives us a prime example of exactly this phenomenon:

Not too far from Sanford, Fla., a black man named John McNeil is serving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a white man who trespassed and attacked him at his home in Georgia, another stand your ground state. On Dec. 6, 2005, John McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, notified his dad over the phone that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard. When La’Ron told the man to leave, an argument broke out. McNeil was still on the phone and immediately recognized Epp’s voice. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, “[w]hy don’t you make me leave?” at which point McNeil told his son to go inside and wait while he called 911 and headed home.

According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door grabbing something from his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil quickly grabbed his gun from the glove compartment in plain view of Epp who was coming at him “fast.” McNeil jumped out of the car and fired a warning shot at the ground insisting that Epp back off. Instead of retreating, Epp charged at McNeil while reaching for his pocket, so McNeil fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. (Epp was found to have a folding knife in his pocket, although it was shut.)

Now this is supposedly the kind of cases that “Stand Your Ground” laws are created to protect: a lawful gun owner presented with an obvious threat having no choice but lethal force in defending himself. The assailant was known to have a weapon, had physically threatened the defendant, and a warning shot was fired. Despite this far more convincing narrative than “a 17 year-old kid scared me so I popped him”, state prosecutors bowed to public pressure to convict John McNeil for his actions. Mr. McNeil did not enjoy sarcasm-based support from outraged commentators at Fox News, nor did arch-centrists rush to point out the number of white-on-white crimes that year-long letter writing campaigns force into belated prosecution. No, instead he was sentenced to life in prison.

The discussion of how racism and laws like “Stand Your Ground” intersect, especially when it comes to public perception and media coverage, is an important one that is worth having. However, no discussion (and particularly not this one) is served by deputizing stupid arguments into the service of establishing false equivalence. The fact that we can’t have this conversation without getting drawn into fights over who is most to blame is proof positive that we are still very much a society in crisis when it comes to our fascination with race.

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*Although I am tempted to think that, when it comes to appearing clueless about race, Jon doesn’t have to do that much acting