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Justice in a Postracial World

In the United States, perceptions of possible deadly threats are too often race-inflected.

Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and too many more unarmed young black men – killed. One feature seems prominent: the claims that it’s not about race. And in so many cases, the bar to be reached for hate-crime prosecution to be successful is never reached; the assertion that “hate” factored into the commission of these crimes is hard to prove convincingly. In the case of the killing of Davis, Michael Dunn’s defense attorney, Michael Stolla, said, “This is not a black-and-white issue. This is what [Dunn] would call a subculture-thug issue. It’s not about race.” Dunn’s own letters from prison contain statements that seem to correlate with that, even as they also show the ways culture and race were fused together:

I’m really not prejudiced against race, but I have no use for certain cultures. This gangster-rap, ghetto talking thug ‘culture’ that certain segments of society flock to is intolerable. They espouse violence and disrespect towards women. The black community here in Jacksonville is in an uproar against me – the 3 other thugs that were in the car are telling stories to cover up their true ‘colors.

Writing about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, legal scholar Robert Weisberg confesses, “I lack the wisdom or any distinct power of insight to add to the roiling debate about how race affected the case. Suffice to say that in the United States today, perceptions of possible deadly threats are all-too-often race-inflected. Race-blindness in resolving a case like this is impossible. Subtracting race from the case was a daunting challenge for the jurors. Race would have been implicit in the legal arguments and was sure to be unmentioned in the jury instruction. But the facts were these: Zimmerman knew Martin was African-American. Martin may have made assumptions about Zimmerman because Zimmerman was a non-black confronting a black. And trying to surmise how Zimmerman and Martin perceived each other was crucial to this case.” So race was clearly a factor, but how to prove it was a determining factor to the satisfaction of the law?

At this point Dunn is not being prosecuted for a hate crime. But I want to use the issue of hate crimes and Hannah Arendt’s comments on the specificity of war crimes to get at an essential question in this era of continued race-denial – how can we address what is now more than ever a social pathology that so many people refuse to diagnose?

Hate crimes need to be seen as having a social life (as opposed to a merely political or legal existence). One legal scholar makes the crucial point that “hate crimes prosecutions are society’s way of demonstrating abhorrence for the specific wrong done to the victim. How society reacts to one’s victimization can be seen by one as an indication of how valuable society takes one to be, which in turn can be viewed as an indication of how valuable one really is.”1 So how can we flesh out, give substance to that abhorrence in more than a symbolic manner? And how does the failure of hate crime prosecution in many of these cases demonstrate exactly the reverse of what Wolfe notes – that is, the lack of value these young men’s lives seem to have in our society?

This notion that alongside or beyond legal punishment there can be an excess of blame and abhorrence that may or may not find any legal recourse is found in Arendt’s comments on the prosecution of war criminals. Arendt first raises “the question of legal punishment, punishment that is usually justified on one of the following grounds: the need of society to be protected against crime, the improvement of the criminal, the deterring force of the warning example for potential criminals, and, finally, the attribution of justice.”

She then says:

“A moment of reflection will convince you that none of these grounds is valid for the punishment of the so-called war criminals: these people were not ordinary criminals. … Here we are demanding and meting a punishment in accordance with our sense of justice, while, on the other hand, the same sense of justice informs us that all our previous notions about punishment and justification have failed us.”2

As the pathology of racism, most specifically as aimed at the black and brown male body, relentlessly continues, we are at a point when our standing notions about punishment and justification have failed us.

Was there premeditation in the mind of Dunn as he repeatedly fired into the van carrying those young men? Or was it self-defense? If his letters are brought into evidence, we find him at once saying, “Under Florida law, I do not have to prove self-defense. The State has to prove it was not. … My attorney said I have a much stronger case of self-defense than Zimmerman,” and then again declaring:

This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these fucking idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior. Eventually, we as a society will wake up and realize that we need to arm ourselves, as the government welfare programs have produced a culture of entitlement for a certain segment of our society.

We are fooling ourselves if we think Dunn is an isolated, crazed man. By now, we know racism of this brand is a strong undercurrent in American life. It indeed has a virulent, warlike character that cannot be simply denied or downplayed. These murders are criminal in the extra-legal fashion Arendt attributes to war crimes, and it is time for us both to give the legal system the means with which to prosecute such crimes effectively and to socially express our abhorrence of such acts in the most powerful way possible.


1 Zachary Wolfe, Hate Crimes Law.

2 Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 26.

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