Renisha McBride and the Killing of Black Bodies
Renisha McBride’s death once again reveals how the criminalization and dehumanization of black youth and the violent policing of black bodies persists in spite of triumphant declarations of post-racial America.
On November 2, nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride became the latest African American to die because someone perceived her presence as a threat. That night, McBride was involved in a car accident with a parked car in Detroit. Two hours later, she was shot dead in the face at a house in Dearborn Heights. McBride’s parents claim she was looking for help. The homeowner thought she was trying to break into his home, and his gun discharged accidentally.
No one knows what exactly happened, and I am not interested in speculating or litigating, but what we already know is significant. Another African American was laid to rest because someone else assumed she was engaging in criminal activity.
McBride’s story recalls the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and especially Jonathan Ferrell. In September, a Charlotte, North Carolina police officer shot Ferrell ten times after the young man sought help after a car accident. Yet, McBride’s slaying reminds us how black masculinity does not represent the lone threat to non-black property and person. McBride’s demise also reflects the legacy of the stigmatization and criminalization of black womanhood that is not limited to the hypersexualized, promiscuous black woman, the racialized “welfare queen,” or the “bad” mother.
Many of us are familiar with stories of racial profiling. We often read or listen to African Americans tell of instances where law enforcement, store clerks, or overzealous citizens stopped and accosted them because their presence near private property or particular public and private spaces was a threatening sight. Fortunately, not every interaction ends tragically. Yet, as historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad illustrates in his insightful book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, criminalizing blackness is historical. The roots of this process lay in what Muhammad calls the condemnation of blackness—the criminalization of black bodies through the reliance of faulty crime statistics and anti-black stereotypes and discourses.
This system seems paradoxical today. How can racial bodily domination persist if there has been “progress?” The presence of “progress” or “freedom” alongside the violent regulation of black bodies is not new, nor is it contradictory. Violence and black freedom are connected intrinsically and historically. In her classic investigation of lynching during the early twentieth century, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells pointed to the interrelatedness of racial violence and black advancement:
“But Emancipation came and the vested interests of the white man in the Negro’s body were lost. The white man had no right to scourge the emancipated Negro, still less has he a right to kill him…In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequency and severity of the scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged; he was killed.”
Thus the post-emancipation violent regulation of black bodies did not represent a detour from racial and national “progress,” but a mechanism for protecting white Americans’ most sacred possessions—white womanhood and private property—in the absence of legalized slavery. Most troubling is how instances of violent repression sent a message to both white and African Americans—no matter how many rights African Americans attained, white Americans always reserved the right to inflict bodily harm when threatened by blackness. Though lynching is illegal now, an aspect of this undemocratic creed of regulation has persisted through the development of legal and technological instruments of containment, and through the rhetoric of armed self-defense. There seems to be little coincidence that two of the African Americans who suffered wrongful deaths did so in the name of protecting both person and property.
While this process of criminalizing blackness draws from this history, it also depends upon a constellation of contemporary ideologies, institutions, and laws designed to regulate public and private space, eliminate and contain criminal threats, and rationalize its outcomes—stand your ground laws, stop and frisk, increased surveillance, and curfew laws. This system, and organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA), encourage the privatization of justice where “good guys with guns” can circumvent due process as long as they can prove in a court that they are neutralizing a threat to bodily and/or property harm. Post-9/11 preoccupations with eliminating suspected threats with the use of preemptive violence buttress this structure of violence. Authoritarian social Darwinist understandings of humanity blocks empathy for victims of color because it blames wrongful and unjust deaths on the victim’s familial life, culture, and past behaviors.
As the investigation into McBride’s death continues, all of the aspects of what historian Heather Ann Thompson often refers to as the carceral state are growing in the city of Detroit. For example, the state of Michigan has legitimized the privatization of justice through its own stand your ground law. Additionally, there are multiple reports of Detroit Police Department training its officers in stop and frisk tactics. Finally, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has praised Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert’s construction of a surveillance system to watch over his downtown property.
Why Renisha McBride’s, Trayvon Martin’s, and Jonathan Ferrell’s cases provoke such strong responses from African Americans and their allies is not limited to unjust verdicts and declarations of “justifiable homicide.” As in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the outrage is about the message that the criminal justice system sends to men and women of color. The reactions often reflect the feelings of powerlessness upon realizing that despite how you conduct yourself, how you dress, where you work, or how you speak, it is permissible, if not normal and rational, for someone to view you as suspect until they determine you are not threatening. And what is even more upsetting is, that “in the heat of the moment,” the stereotyped unarmed and vulnerable person suddenly has little recourse—no due process, no right to self protection because if one gets the best of someone like George Zimmerman, then the person of color in question is the thug. Afterwards, some lawyer will put the victim’s blackness on trial. They may look for incriminating pictures on social media sites, examine the music the victim enjoys, probe into their family life, and investigate their dress, in the effort to turn the victim into a self-fulfilling prophecy— a lone wolf waiting to inflict harm on white bodies and white property, all because of their race and gender.
Many Americans express skepticism when an African American tries to talk about race in an unapologetically critical manner. Many are absolutely hostile to participating in black-led conversations about race that do not reflexively praise white Americans for meeting basic expectations for civility and respect or unequivocally reject black protests of racial injustice. This is often the case because many skeptics deny privilege and understand racism at its most base and superficial level—the presence of “whites only” or “Negroes not apply” signs, the deployment of racial epithets, the donning of white hoods, or the naked expressions of racially-motivated violence. What the aforementioned have in common is that most would agree on the presence of ill intent in each of these situations. But, when we talk about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride, we are not discussing a perpetrator’s intent, backwardness, or evil heart; we are talking about the products of a legalized system of violence that produces traumatized and/or dead black bodies and disfranchised citizens in spite of “progress.” We are highlighting the fears of black parents, sisters, brothers, partners, and ourselves—that one of our loved ones may not return home because of an instance of driving, walking, or shopping while black gone terribly wrong. We argue that no American should have to live that way.
Many people of color in the U.S. have experienced these sorts of interactions with police officers, store clerks, and non-trained and non-professional overzealous watchdogs. That explains the groundswell of solidarity for Trayvon Martin. Many of us see a part of ourselves in Trayvon and Renisha.
The flourishing of protest and solidarity in the aftermath of such tragedies is encouraging. For anyone who rationalizes racial profiling and the violent protection of private property from blackness, McBride’s death could not have occurred in a worse place. The city of Detroit boasts a long history of successful defenses against police brutality and wrongful black deaths, namely the defeat of a federally-funded clandestine police unit—“Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets”—in 1974. During the early 1970s a large coalition of African American political organizations and white Detroiters emerged to stop a unit that killed nineteen African Americans in two years. Ron Scott, a veteran of the anti-STRESS movement of the 1970s and his allies are continuing their work to prevent wrongful black death in the aftermath of the McBride shooting. They, like many of us, know the continuing condemnation of blackness and the evolving system of violent bodily regulation is what poses the real threat to what is left of democracy, not anyone confiscating guns, as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and other conservatives would have us believe.
 See Tamar Jacoby’s Someone Else’s House: America’s Unfinished Struggle for Integration (1998) and Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit, I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (1998) for sustained discussions of STRESS.