Joy Beyond The Prison and Prism of Pain: Racial bias and legislative intent

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although I don’t speak about it much I still think about Renisha McBride. I wonder how her family is doing. Renisha was the young woman who was shot in the face with a shotgun by Ted Wafer. According to reports he called 911 after he shot her, while she lay dead or dying on his doorstep.

Renisha was an African American woman who was murdered by a White man. The nature of her death rings a familiar historical tone of how quickly Black life can be eradicated. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates in the US, and in many ways, we have to face living in psychological prisons when coping with discrimination, and the possibility of experiencing a hate crime. “Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.” See here for more information.

According to the FBI Hate crimes overview, “A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

Would Ted Wafer have shot a drunk White woman in the face with a shotgun? If you answer, probably not, then this suggests that bias may have existed. Bias is “a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.”  Extreme forms of bias can lead to hatred. Hatred can then lead to violence.

Bias and Black to Black Murders

Before I go any further, I want to address the skeptic and recalcitrant who often cite Black to Black murder data when white to black murders are discussed. These arguments deflect the examination of white racial prejudice toward African Americans and other people of color. Both the murder of Renisha and the death of African American by the hands of other African Americans is related to how black life is dehumanized.  The underlying reason that Blacks kill other Blacks and Whites kill Blacks is because African Americans are continually dehumanized, devalued, and considered inconsequential to the overall positive functioning of our society. These dehumanization and devaluation processes are vivid in some media portrayal, textbooks, healthcare, and so forth.

Rationales for killing a black person might be viewed through a cause and effect psychosocial lens. One major cause of black dehumanization is white supremacy. The racist belief that whites are superior to other groups while simultaneously asserting black inferiority in legal, health, social, and educational realms.  Black murder rates than represent a crazy sort of psychological racial valuation chart, these charts operate in a similar way that corporate stocks fluctuate based on supply and demand, and perceived values. Whites represent a more valuable form of social stock, so to speak. This concept overvaluation and undervaluation when examining whites and blacks is also expressed in the Brown Eye and Blue eye experiment, that has more than 2 million views on You Tube , Whiteness as property law articles, White by Law books, and Peggy McIntosh’s, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

All Deliberate Speed and the Inconsistency of Using Social Science Research in Legislative and Judicial Proceedings

I am not implying that one type of death is worse or better than the other. But, what I am arguing is for our courts to move with “all deliberate speed” in accepting legal arguments that might substantiate racial bias in black murder cases. We know for example that Blacks as a group are disproportionately subjected to hate crimes when compared to all other sociocultural groups in America, so the possibility that racial discrimination might be present in a white to black murder is not an imaginative stretch.  Although Ted Wafer was indicted for murder he was not charged with a hate crime. Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, who happens to be an African American woman rejected Wafer’s self defense claims and charged him with “second-degree murder, manslaughter and firearms violation” The additional charge of a hate crime was not part of the probable cause hearing.  Instead, Kym Worthy faced an untenable position, risking the possibility of her professional reputation by even remotely suggesting the possibility of a hate crime.

If a hate crime charge are added this would help to capture crime statistics in federal crime data, and may have offered further legal remedies for the McBride family. I am not an attorney and do not know if the family can bring a civil proceeding after the completion of a convicted murder trial, if he is found guilty. I have included both the hate crime (Appendix A) and second degree murder penal codes (Appendix B), at the end of the blog writing.

My main point is this: In a broader legal context, when hate crimes are left out of criminal charges it leaves out the possibility of exploring if racial bias played a role.  In this case, the sole determination of racial bias rests within the purview of one county prosecutor. If this murder was racially biased than our courts need to grapple with how racial bias may or may not have played in his decision making process to shoot Renisha.

How can we address racial bias if legislators and by extension the courts perceive racial bias as trivial factors that do not influence decision-making processes?  

Social science research continues to inform us that racial bias and gender bias does effect some decision-making processes.

The causal root factors of violence are wrong, no matter who holds the gun and why.  We should not be reluctant to consider social scientific data when examining these matters. State and federal courts used social science research in dismantling public educational systems, for example, Brown versus Board of Education case. Legislative bodies and courts should continue to include social scientific findings in a wide variety of court related matters that disproportionately affect people of color.

Through the absence of considering any racial bias research, legislators and by extension, courts seem to condone a social space that permits an American citizenry a free for all approach to sorting through long standing, racial issues. For example, Stand Your Ground Laws, while not the likely legislative intent, have become social proxies for enacting prejudice and racial discrimination. Stand your ground laws and other public policies that show a disparate impact on ethnic minorities need to be overhauled. African Americans, and others who may experience stigmatization, and those whose psychological welfare is not typically represented in our legal systems, should not be psychologically imprisoned by legislative cultural insensitivity and indifference.

Until legislators actively consider and include findings from racial and gender bias research, like the McBride family and other Black families who suffer from their loved ones being murdered by senseless acts, I too yearn for the space where joy can live beyond the prison and prisms of pain.

Appendix A
THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE (EXCERPT)
Act 328 of 1931, 750.147b Ethnic intimidation.
Sec. 147b.

(1) A person is guilty of ethnic intimidation if that person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, or national origin, does any of the following:

(a) Causes physical contact with another person.

(b) Damages, destroys, or defaces any real or personal property of another person.

(c) Threatens, by word or act, to do an act described in subdivision (a) or (b), if there is reasonable cause to believe that an act described in subdivision (a) or (b) will occur.

(2) Ethnic intimidation is a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years, or by a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both.

(3) Regardless of the existence or outcome of any criminal prosecution, a person who suffers injury to his or her person or damage to his or her property as a result of ethnic intimidation may bring a civil cause of action against the person who commits the offense to secure an injunction, actual damages, including damages for emotional distress, or other appropriate relief. A plaintiff who prevails in a civil action brought pursuant to this section may recover both of the following:

(a) Damages in the amount of 3 times the actual damages described in this subsection or $2,000.00, whichever is greater.

(b) Reasonable attorney fees and costs.”

Appendix B- THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE (EXCERPT) Act 328 of 1931, 750.317 Second degree murder; penalty. Sec. 317. Second degree murder—All other kinds of murder shall be murder of the second degree, and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life, or any term of years, in the discretion of the court trying the same.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. pheralyn says:

    Brian,
    You raise some relevant points that are especially poignant today, as the nation commemorates the holiday designated for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I agree that white supremacy is rooted not only in American culture, but in global culture as well. This phenomenon partly explains why toxic skin-bleaching creams are so prevalent in such divergent places as India and Ghana and why so many African American women don weaves and wigs rather than wear their hair in its natural state (the current, encouraging natural Black hair revolution notwithstanding.) Implicit in the acknowledgement of white supremacy is the automatic devaluation of Black life. This explains, as you so eloquently stated, why “The underlying reason that Blacks kill other Blacks and Whites kill Blacks is because African Americans are continually dehumanized, devalued, and considered inconsequential to the overall positive functioning of our society.” In looking to get beyond these injustices and unfortunate realities, I find it difficult to come up with viable solutions. But I will say that those of us of African descent, particularly African Americans, must learn about and embrace the beauty and grandeur of the magnificent cultures we descended from and recognize the fact that our history did not start with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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    1. brianlragsdale says:

      Hi Pheralyn–Thanks for reading my work. I have been thinking about your reply for a couple of days…sort of like listening to a friend while sipping chai tea latte. I want to approach my response gingerly and with respect. It really doesn’t bother me when African American women don weaves and wigs, because I believe that Black women are entitled to body freedom. Although I am aware that sometimes wearing weaves and wigs may in fact represent some underlying self hatred, discomfort, or even indicate a response to the media portrayals of certain skin color and phenotypes. Women of African descent were given little choices historically, for example, my ancestors who were women, had to work along side men in the fields while assuming other family duties. No choice. I love the creativity that many Black women illustrate with their hair and I marvel at all forms of hairstyles including the dreaded weave….for me these choices are symbols of womanist freedom and personal choice. In all the ways that I can imagine, I want the black body to be free; but that freedom for me is represented by choice and not necessarily through ascribing meaning behind a fashion statement or hairstyle choice.

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