In the years after enslavement, Southern Whites did all they could to return to a manner of slavery. No White “owned” a Black person, but many Whites behaved as if they did. Theoretically, Blacks were free to come and go as they pleased, but if they went to the wrong store, sat in the wrong part of the bus, or failed to yield narrow sidewalks to Whites, they could expect a physical confrontation. All a White woman had to do was cry “rape” for a Black man (and usually the wrong man) was beaten or lynched. Whites expected deference from Black people, and when they didn’t get it, they demanded it with physical threats or worse.
In the months after World War II, 12 million soldiers returned home. Seven percent of them – nearly 800,000 Black soldiers – got something less than a hero’s welcome. Indeed, thousands of Black World II veterans were beaten, often because these men wanted the same rights at home that they fought for abroad. Their sense of dignity and equality seemed to embolden the Ku Klux Klan, which was responsible for soldiers in uniform being pulled off busses, beaten and shot. In some cases, these soldiers had their eyes gouged out; in some cases they were castrated, tortured and lynched.
Whites engaged in the writing of Jim Crow laws that were imposed on Blacks such as vagrancy laws that made it possible to jail a Black man because he had no money. These unequal laws made it as easy to find a nearly free labor market as it had in slavery. There was no relief from this unfairness until the late 1960s and early 1970s. And Whites attempting to reinforce the myth of White superiority by reinstituting the practice of deference found a Black population less ready to defer, more willing to engage the courts (and in some cases the streets) in a quest for equality.
When the myth of White superiority does not work, too many Whites hide behind their so-called fear as a way force deference or provide penalties for those who will not engage in White people’s fantasies. If Michael Dunn were so afraid of Jordan Davis and his friends, why did he get out of his car and confront them about their loud music?
None of us of a certain age loves loud music, but most of us know how to close a window and tolerate it for a moment or two. Dunn says he was afraid of teens playing “thug” music. Those teens might well have been afraid of him, just as the World War II veterans had been afraid of the KKK. Jordan Davis and his friends might have been as frightened as formers slaves were, when they refused to cross the sidewalk into the streets so that Whites could go first. Some of these Black folks ignored their fear and attempted to exercise their citizenship rights. Some were lynched because they would not defer to outmoded customs.
Gary Pearl could be Michael Dunn’s evil twin, with a pecuniary twist. In 1983, Pearl left his job as a city sanitation supervisor in Louisville, Kentucky because he says he had a nervous breakdown, which he attributed to having to work with Black people. A psychiatrist testified that Pearl was suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; judge ordered that he be paid $231 per week. The state appealed the award, it was eventually overturned, and Gary Pearl returned to the obscurity he had before the “fear” defense.
What would happen if every Black person fearing White people got to file for unemployment compensation, or carry a gun around to assuage himself of his safety? Would a jury be as lenient toward that Black man as they were with Michael Dunn? Would they acquit just like the jury acquitted the men who killed Medgar Evers (it took decades for a jury to finally do the right thing). A hard read of history suggests that Blacks have more to fear from Whites than the other way around, but it is Whites, rationalizing their fear, who get to shoot without justification.
A thorough read of history, however, would remind us of the Dred Scott case where the Supreme Court ruled that Black people have no rights that Whites are bound to respect. Clearly, Michael Dunn, George Zimmerman and the others who have Klan sensibilities and invisible hoods, believe a 19th century Supreme Court ruling instead of 21st century realities. For folks like Dunn and Zimmerman, however, the 19th century is not very different than the 21st
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.