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Race, Public Policy and Stand Your Ground

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By William Carr

History of Race and Violence

When 14-year-old Chicago native Emmet Till innocently failed to adhere to the unwritten law of the Jim Crow south, by flirting with a white woman in Money, Mississippi, he unknowingly attracted the wrath of the town’s racist’s thugs and his life was viciously ended. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are just two of the latest names in the seemingly infinite list of African-American boys to have fallen prey to a congruence of negative stereotypes, folkways and laws that collectively and distinctly form the specter of systemic racism in America.

The building of early America called for hard work, blood, sweat and strong backs. The introduction of the African slave and the subsequent implementation of chattel slavery provided what seemed to be the definitive answer to the America’s problem— cheap, efficient and abundant labor. However, what was considered to be our country’s salvation also turned out to be the seed for one of her greatest early fears; the slave revolt. Ironically, the fear of violence was said to be the provocation for the slave master to rely upon the gun, the ultimate symbol of violence, in order to maintain control of his property, paramount of which historians long contend to have been his slaves. Mark M. Smith details this in his book, Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum American South (New Studies Economic and Social History).

The slave master believed that in order to maintain control of his slaves they had to be regulated. The young strong African male had to be broken. The term means that his natural response for self-protection must be eradicated through beatings and other more deadly violent means if necessary. When the slaves will to fight back was gone, then the boy had been broken or regulated and the work of the plantation could proceed unthreatened. The term “break” has survived to this day. Former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint said he wanted to “break” President Obama by stopping Obamacare. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Linda Feldman wrote that stopping Obamacare would be Obama’s waterloo according to Jim DeMint.

The gun proved to be the formidable instrument in the settlers march westward. The Winchester rifle was known as the ‘Gun that won the West.’ The Native Americans that weren’t killed by various Eurasian Germs were neutralized by their disadvantages with regard to weapons. History is replete with accountings of massacres in which Native Americans were annihilated by gunfire. Historical accounts note that the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre was responsible for killing between 150 to 300 Native American men, women and children.

Stand Your (SYG) Ground Law

sygAccording to Findlaw.com, twenty-three states have passed the stand your ground law (SYG). Those individuals that support SYG are also proponents of the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Paramount among them is the National Rifle Association (NRA). The observance of their second amendment rights is conveniently used by supporters of SYG Laws. In this case, the second amendment is observed at the expense of any of the other rights afforded to citizens by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The least of those is the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, SYG represents the expansion of the castle doctrine, which holds that a man’s home is his unassailable domain and there is no duty to retreat inside the home. SYG laws in Florida and twenty-three other states hold that an individual has no duty to retreat anywhere that he/she has a legal right to be. In addition to the latter, in order to legally shoot another person one only needs to believe that his/her life is in danger.

After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 2012 Huffington Post article written by Katherine Fung quoted Geraldo Rivera as saying that African-American or Latino boys should not wear hoodies because they have negative or criminal implications. As Martin was wearing a hoodie at the time of the shooting, Rivera seemed to blame the shooting on the hoodie, or Martin himself, rather than the shooter or the SYG law. What is even worse, Rivera was condoning the mindset that serves to abrogate the constitutional rights of African-American and Latino boys.

In this example, Rivera acknowledged the power of public opinion or stereotypes as it relates to the hoodie. However, he ignored more substantive realities that relate to race in America. Was it the hoodie or Trayvon’s race that evoked the deadly response? What then is Geraldo’s advice for those African-American or Latino teens that happen to live in a SYG states, especially when statistics show that many fear and feel threatened by them just because of the color of their skin. Bonnie Berman Cushman identified this fear in her article titled “White fear of Black Men.”

Should African-American boys stay at home, moreover, move to a non SYG state?  Therein lies the rub.  If SYG laws were not designed to create a chilling effect, they nonetheless have that effect on African-Americans. One can’t change skin color as one changes articles of clothing in order to prevent violence; however bad laws can and should be eradicated in order to protect the innocent.

Public Policy

The reality is that Florida’s SYG law was fostered by the NRA and upon adaptation became a ‘cause célèbre’ of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right wing organization which is dedicated to the adaptation of conservative legislation throughout America- one state at a time. John Nichols documents this in his 2012 article titled “How ALEC took Florida’s ‘License to Kill Law’ National.”

The controversial yet burgeoning SYG law has as many dubious consequences as there are reasons for its enactment. De Jure, the provisions of the law are clear, however, the de facto ramification of its implementation is exceedingly profound. Many African-Americans detest the law. They believe that it promotes an atmosphere in which they are frequent targets of unwarranted violence. Many believe SYG is reminiscent of Jim Crow Era laws that were enacted during the near century subsequent to the Civil War. Similar to Jim Crow laws, the SYG laws are implemented by the state legislatures and many African-Americans believe they are the primary targets.

Many say that SYG creates a chilling effect for African-Americans and that it serves to prevent them from pursuing their constitutionally protected activities for fear of unprovoked violence. Conversely, they believe that the law emboldens racists as well as individuals who are inherently proned to violence to use the law in order to expedite there deadly endeavors. With all the rhetoric surrounding the SYG laws, it interesting to note that a 2013 National Public Radio article written by Shankar Vedantam and David Schultz titled “Stand Your Ground Linked to Increased Homicides,” details the ominous statistics connecting SYG with a 7 percent to 9 percent increase in homicides in states that have passed such laws.

The SYG laws represent the result of America’s history which involves its early need and fascination for guns. The need was realized in the necessity to control the African slave as well as the original Native inhabitants of this land. Slavery, and its vestiges, continues to influence red and purple states through the use of SYG laws which have been used to symbolically control African-Americans.


Author:  ASPA member William Carr, DPA, has forty-years of public agency experience, twenty years in a court executive position, primarily in the New Jersey Judiciary. He retired in 2008 as assistant chief probation officer of the New Jersey Superior Court, Probation Division, Essex Vicinage. Currently he is an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Essex County Community College, a fellow of the Institute of Court Management (Williamsburg, Va.) and treasurer and newsletter editor of the New Jersey Association of Criminal Justice Educators.  Carr is a licensed clinical social worker in the State of New Jersey.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter at @yllib1234.

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