“I hate that thug music.”
This, according to Rhonda Rouer’s testimony last week, is what her fiance, Michael Dunn, said when they pulled into a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station next to an SUV full of black kids who had the stereo up high, pumping some obnoxious, bass-heavy rap.
Rouer was inside the convenience store when she heard the shots. Dunn, who is white, had gotten into an argument with the young men about their music, had gone into his glove box for his pistol and started shooting. As the SUV tried to get away, he fired still more rounds. At least one of those rounds fatally struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Dunn drove to his hotel. He did not call police. He ordered pizza. The next morning, he drove home to Satellite Beach, 175 miles south, where police arrested him. Dunn claimed he shot at the SUV because Davis threatened him with a gun. Davis was unarmed.
Dunn is now on trial for murder. He’s claiming self-defense in the November 2012 shooting, saying he felt threatened, though his victim wielded nothing more dangerous than the aforementioned “thug” music.
And we need to talk about that word a moment. But first, let’s try a thought experiment: Close your eyes and picture a California girl. Close your eyes and picture a chess prodigy.
Chances are, you saw the former as a sun-kissed blonde in a bikini running along a beach in slow motion and the latter as a studious-looking boy in owlish glasses. Chances are you saw both of them as white.
Now, close your eyes and picture a thug.
It is exceedingly likely the person you pictured was black like Jordan Davis.
The point is, the words we use are often encoded with racial presumptions and expectations. Thus, your image of a California girl is more likely to resemble Farrah Fawcett (born in Corpus Christi) than Tyra Banks (born in Los Angeles) and your idea of a prodigy will not include Phiona Mutesi, a teenage chess champion from Uganda.
And thus “thug” becomes the more politically correct substitute for a certain racial slur. This is why Stanford-educated black football player Richard Sherman was called a thug for speaking loudly in an interview, but singer Justin Bieber was just a “bad boy” while facing charges of vandalism, assault and DUI.
And it is why, in jailhouse letters released to the media, Dunn uses that word to describe the boy he shot. But he doesn’t stop there. “The jail is full of blacks,” he writes, “and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots, when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”
In other letters he decries the lack of sympathy from the “liberal bastards” in the media, and takes heart that the counties surrounding Jacksonville are dominated by white Republican gun owners. He writes, “The jail here is almost all black prisoners. You’d think Jacksonville was 90 percent black judging by the makeup of the folks in jail here!”
What he describes, of course, is the great Catch-22 of African-American life. They decide you’re a thug from the moment you’re born, so they lock you up in disproportionate numbers. Then they point to the fact that you are locked up in disproportionate numbers to prove that you’re a thug.
Michael Dunn is a hateful man, condemned as a racist by his own words and deeds. But that’s his problem. Ours is that this sickness is not confined to him. And that it causes blindness, rendering sufferers unable to see what is right in front of them.
So one can only wonder with dread how many of us gaze upon this man who shot up an SUV full of unarmed kids, then fled the scene, and see a victim.
And how many will see a “thug” in a teenager just trying to dodge the bullets.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.