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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

Comments

  1. Brownian says

    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.

    Ah, I can’t even quip. I want to cry instead.

  2. mynameischeese says

    I can’t figure out why the stand your ground laws are needed at all. Isn’t “self defense” a defense? Or are people threatened by the very idea of going to court in the first place and needing to employ a defense?

    Honestly, in both cases, I think there should have been a trial, even if I do think that McNeil should have gotten off with a “self defense” defense. It just seems like if a person is dead with a gun shot wound in them, that it’s too important a matter to not be investigated.

  3. prtsimmons says

    Good post, Crommunist – “the benefit of the doubt” is an excellent way to explain this aspect of white privilege. I have definitely been in situations where my (white) friends and I have benefitted from this. For example, I have a friend who was walking down the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland when he decided to light up a joint (St. John’s is a pretty easy-going place). He did not notice the police officer standing a mere 15 feet away. The police officer took the joint, asked him his name and address, then told him he was free to go. Just as my friend turned to walk away, the cop said, “Hey Paddy” and flicked the joint back at him. Now, obviously this is just an anecdote about a single officer and a single incident, but I don’t doubt that it something similar has happened to other respectable-looking white kids; I also think that if Paddy had been black or Native, there is a much greater chance that he would have been arrested or frisked, and possibly acquired a criminal record, and suffered a whole train of consequences because of this minor incident that is just an amusing anecdote for a white guy.

  4. josh says

    For the sake of completeness, people might want to note that McNeil was not initially charged by police and it took a year to bring prosecution against him. I do think the point stands that Fox News and co. are much more likely to get het up about these things when they think they’re taking on the Great Liberal Victimhood Machine, and not so much when they would have to be on the same side as the NAACP.

  5. Besomyka says

    Wow. That’s the first time I’ve heard about the Georgia case and that makes me despair for my country. I don’t even know what to say that our Justice system is so biased. How do we even begin to fix it?

  6. minxatlarge says

    I wish Elaine Brown could meet you. She has some stories about Georgia. And I’m pretty sure she would love you on sight.

  7. Anon says

    It’s also worth looking at Cece McDonald, who was violently assaulted. The assault was clearly a hate crime, and she only defended herself. She was arrested, and none of the people who attacked her were. So, why hasn’t she been picked up as a story by the media? That would be because she’s a black transwoman, and as such is in the “get fucked over” category instead of the “be helped” category when it comes to society in general and the police in particular.

  8. Broggly says

    No. IANAL, but in most common law jurisdictions, self defence means you have a responsibility to retreat if possible. This is intended to prevent violent situations from escalating. Most jurisdictions have a “your home is your castle” concept, that is that your residence is supposed to be a place of safety and nobody should be expected to flee their own home from an intruder. Stand your ground laws extend this to all places, so people are not obligated or expected to escape from a violent situation no matter where they are.

  9. J. Goard says

    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[…]

    That’s not a tin ear — it’s a deliberate, provocative analogy. You think a professional comic is going to avoid such low-hanging fruit?

    Though, Stewart’s excessive play on how sweet and innocent the old white couple were was a bit fucking much. After all, phenomena like racism and homophobia have a history of being scaffolded by the courteous and opposed by the rude.

  10. ... says

    “Benefit of the doubt” is, essentially, the same thing as “presumption of innocence”. There’s a name for systems where the opposite presumption operates.

  11. says

    Fuck, it’s like you don’t know how to read anything besides titles of things. READ THE BODY OF TEXT! I know it’s hard, what with there being so many words and all, but that’s how you avoid looking like an idiot.

  12. Billy Clyde Tuggle says

    Crommunist,

    I read the linked article about the McNeil case as well as the accompanying comments. It appears that the one reason McNeil got charged and convicted was that he told the 911 operator that he was going to “whip [Epp’s] A$s”. The prosecutor is alleged to have sent this email in response to one of the commenters:

    >> “Read the transcript of the trial. The Supreme Court has reviewed the case and affirmed the decision of the jury. It always amazes me that people believe everything they read. This case is very similar to Trayvon Martin. Mr. Epps was unarmed and murdered in cold blood. There was no threat to McNeil, he was just mad and shot an unarmed man.

    Patrick H. Head
    District Attorney
    Cobb Judicial circuit” <<

    I am not saying that there wasn't a signifcant racial element in play here, but it seems like there might be more to the story than blatent racially-biased railroading.

  13. says

    You’ll have to forgive me if I have a hard time believing that a District Attorney, even one from Georgia, would bother e-mailing commenters on an internet thread.

    And someone will some day have to explain to me how “has a knife that was brandished in someone’s face” qualifies as “unarmed”.

  14. josh says

    Epps evidently didn’t have the knife in hand when he approached McNeil, although he was allegedly reaching for his pocket where the knife was later found. For legal purposes I don’t know what the definition of armed is: brandishing a weapon or having one on one’s person. Obviously, Epps having earlier pulled out a knife (allegedly, on McNeil’s son I think), McNeil would argue that he had a reasonable expectation of impending harm.

  15. Billy Clyde Tuggle says

    I agree that the there is no way to know if the email response from the DA is real. It would not have been a response to “commenters on an internet thread”, however (the DA or person posing as him didn’t actually respond to the thread). If real, it would have been a response to an email inquiry from a private citizen.

    Josh is correct about Epp’s “evidently” not having the knife in hand when the confrontation took place (see the supreme court opinion linked to in the Salon piece). This was corroborated by eyewitness testimony and forensics and suggests that McNeil lied in his testimony. Nevertheless, life in prison seems pretty dam# harsh given the circumstances. I’d want to fully immerse myself in all the evidence presented at trial and all the relevant law before passing judgement either way.

    FWIW, I just check the Supreme court of Georgia website and 2 of 6 presiding justices who voted with the majority opinion in McNeil’s 2008 appeal appear to be African-American.

  16. says

    Fair enough. I will confess I didn’t read outside of the linked article – I suppose my own lack of skepticism is on display here. The “Stand Your Ground” laws are ridiculously medieval, and nobody should be allowed to kill another person when there are other options on the table. I think McNeil should have been prosecuted. The difference in my mind was how the cases were treated. I suppose it’s too early to judge whether or not Zimmerman’s case will have a similar result.

  17. Billy Clyde Tuggle says

    The McNeil case is a tragedy. It seems pretty clear that Epp was a very dangerous guy (at the very least a complete a-hole). Just as in the Zimmerman case, if McNeil had taken steps to avoid confrontation and waited for law enforcement, tragedy would have been avoided. The Dirty Harry approach can be fun for ones fantasy life, but it doesn’t play out so well in reality.

  18. Ray says

    In America, there happens to be this troublesome little concepts called “innocent until proven guily in a court of law”.

    I realize that in the full-blown idiocy of pop-culture its much more convenient to convict people through TMZ than something so passe as a jury, but I guess due process is just another form of “white privelege” (never mind that Zimmerman is actually Hispanic) as long as the race card is invoked.

    I call bullshit, for the same reason I called it in the Casey Anthony or Michael Jackson cases-it is not up to the tabloids to convict people.

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