Killing in Self-Defense: You Better Be White


(The Root) — It doesn’t hurt to have a little white privilege on your side.

If you can get it.

And George Zimmerman got the most out of what privilege he had after being found not guilty in the murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. After the verdict, Zimmerman’s attorneys held a press conference, and attorney Mark O’Mara, while answering a reporter’s question, remarked that if Zimmerman had been black, “He never would’ve been charged with a crime.”

O’Mara couldn’t be more wrong.

I don’t know which justice system O’Mara’s been operating in, but black people are more likely to get a conviction no matter who they kill — black or white — even if they claim self-defense. Especially since most of them can’t afford O’Mara to represent them in the first place.

There is no privilege in claiming self-defense while black — even when killing another black person. When the verdict came down not guilty, Zimmerman had not just the jury but also statistics on his side.

A 2012 study by PBS’s Frontline is getting a second look post-Zimmerman’s exoneration, and it reveals that if you’re going to kill in self-defense in America, you’d better be white. By analyzing data from a study by John Roman, senior analyst at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, Frontline found that in “Stand your ground” states, white people who kill black people are 354 percent more likely to be found justified in their killings. And it doesn’t get much better in non-“Stand your ground” states, where that number goes down only to 250 percent.

But even when it comes to black-on-black crime or black-on-white crime, a black defendant is unlikely to get a self-defense ruling in his or her favor, whether or not the state has “Stand your ground” laws on the books, as shown in this graph.












But is this proof of bias? Not necessarily, according to Frontline:

“So the disparity is clear. But the figures don’t yet prove bias. As Roman points out, the data doesn’t show the circumstances behind the killings, for example whether the people who were shot were involved in home invasions or in a confrontation on the street.

Additionally, there are far fewer white-on-black shootings in the FBI data — only 25 total in both the Stand Your Ground and non-Stand Your Ground states. In fact, the small sample size is one of the reasons Roman conducted a regression analysis, which determines the statistical likelihood of whether the killings will be found justifiable.”

Anecdotally, we can name the names — Oscar Grant III, James Byrd, Amadou Diallo, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin — some killed by police, others by civilians. Sometimes the perpetrators were punished, as in the case of Byrd’s lynching. Others were sentenced, but leniently, like former police officer Johannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant. He received two years with credit for time served and served only 11 months. Trayvon’s killer is now free, and it’s yet to be seen what will happen to Michael Dunn, who shot Florida teen Jordan Davis over an alleged dispute involving “loud music.”

So the fact that black life, again, isn’t valued as much as the lives of others — and that if you’re a black person claiming self-defense, you are unlikely to be believed — is not shocking. It’s depressing, but a depressing reality that we have lived under for centuries.

How can these statistics be surprising when post-Reconstruction lynchings were rampant? There were rarely arrests, and almost never any trials. Just death. And how can anyone raise an eyebrow after witnessing the 1950s and ’60s, when, even if, on the off-chance, someone who killed a civil rights worker or any black person did end up in court, that person was unlikely to be punished? After all, all these black victims had dared to “step out of line,” “not know their place” or “be uppity,” which is all code for “They were acting like they had rights or something.” And you can’t have black people acting, thinking, living, breathing, being a free people.

They might marry your daughter, and their kid might become president of the United States. Can’t have that.

Privilege is real. White privilege is especially real, especially when it comes to our courts of law, especially when it comes to death. No matter if you’re the victim or the perp, if you want justice, the only thing you don’t want to be is the black one.

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.


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