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Stand Your Ground in Context: Did the South's Culture of Racialized Violence and Honor Encourage Michael Dunn to Kill Jordan Davis?

The South is part of the United States; the South is a country within a country.

The Michael Dunn-Jordan Davis Stand Your Ground murder case has been the focus of a great deal of micro-level analysis. Dunn's racist letters and claims of "victim" status have been been highlighted as evidence of his racist intent towards Jordan Davis.

An interview with Dunn's neighbors exposed his sociopathic and rageful character. Jordan Davis's family has courageously shared how they have dealt with the horror of having their teenage son stolen from them by an impulse control lacking adult--and then how the same adult was found "not guilty" of committing murder.

What do we make of African-American young people, one of which who was on Dunn's jury, that have so profoundly and deeply internalized white racism that they excuse-make for white vigilantism?

And I have wondered about how black folks should deal with a de facto state of affairswherein Stand Your Ground laws act as legal permission for white people to shoot us dead in the street?

By contrast, there has been little if any discussion of the macro-level cultural motivations that drove Michael Dunn to shoot and murder an unarmed teenager, and to feel right and legitimate in doing so, because the latter's music was "offensive" and he dared to "talk back" to a white man.

History and context are important here. Stand Your Ground laws were birthed in the South and other parts of Red State America by the National Rifle Association and the Koch Brothersfunded Right-wing lobby group ALEC.

Zimmerman killed Trayon Martin in Florida. Dunn also killed Jordan Davis in Florida.

Florida saw the highest documented percentage of African-Americans lynched in the United States.

Red State America is the Confederacy reborn. One cannot marshal the language and imagery of the Confederacy (the Confederate flag is in fact the American Swastika) under the guise of the Republican Party without channeling its ugly history of racial violence and white on black racial tyranny. White supremacy is not a buffet of attitudes and values that can be cherry picked from at one's own convenience. No. White supremacy is a philosophy and lifeworld that colors and infuses all that it touches.

The white racism--and accompanying white on black street vigilantism--that is channeled and legitimated by Stand Your Grounds laws is part of this ugly legacy.

There has been extensive research about "Southern Culture" and its relationship to notions of "honor", "manhood", race, class, and violence.

For example, Whet Moser describes how:

The U.S. is simply much more violent than other developed countries. And the region that brings up the national average is the South...

It’s not exclusively Southern states with high assault-death rates; a third chart by Healy shows that some Western and Midwestern states have higher rates than some Southern states. But by region, the difference is dramatic.

This has been the case for many, many years, and many causes have been proposed: hot weather, economic disparity, the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. In 1996, four psychologists from Midwestern universities, led by UIUC’s Dov Cohen and Michigan’s Richard Nisbett, designed a lab experiment to test if Southerners were more prone to violence, and in particular violence stemming from a “culture of honor” endemic to the region.

They ran their subjects through a battery of tests designed to provoke: bumping the subject in a hallway, calling him an “asshole,” forcing a game of “chicken” in a hallway (anecdatally, I am more likely to bump rude people on the bus or sidewalk than my friends, and am also Southern), and other subtle manhood challenges. The researchers then took qualitative and quantitative data (emphasis mine)...

After provocation, Southerners were not only more angry on the outside, they were more angry on the inside, down to their neurochemistry. (The authors also theorize that Southern politeness could be a response to Southern aggression—if Southerners are more likely to take offense than other regional cultures, it follows they would be less likely to give offense, for safety’s sake.)

The South's regional culture of masculinity, honor, and violence was carried North (and elsewhere) by the series of "great migrations" of African-Americans during the twentieth century as they moved to escape Jim and Jane Crow:

What does this have to do with Chicago, and violence in Chicago?

In 1986, Nicholas Lemann wrote a lengthy, two-part series for The Atlantic on crime and poverty in Chicago. One of the things he encountered was just how Southern Chicago is:

"Although the migration ended in the early seventies – again, because jobs had become scarce in Chicago – there is still considerable movement back and forth, and the South is very much in the minds of black Chicagoans. Most of the very successful local blacks who are held up as role models are southern-born: Jesse Jackson (South Carolina), John H. Johnson, the owner of Ebony (Arkansas), Oprah Winfrey, the TV host who appeared in The Color Purple (Mississippi), Walter Payton, of the Chicago Bears (Mississippi), the Reverend Johnnie Colemon, the pastor of the biggest church in Chicago (Mississippi). [snip]

Black Mississippians go to Chicago too. Recently, at a student assembly of a black Catholic grade school in Canton [Mississippi], I asked the children how many had been to Chicago, and nearly every hand went up. Often they went for long visits with relatives in the summers. (How many want to live in Chicago when they grow up? I asked. No hands. Why not? An immediate chorus: “Too dangerous.") At one of Chicago’s worst high schools – Orr, on the West Side – I asked a class how many were born in Chicago. Almost everyone was. But almost everyone’s mother had been born in Mississippi. Many of the mothers of a class of eighth graders at Beethoven School, an elementary school whose students all live in the Robert Taylor Homes, were from Mississippi."

Part of Lemann’s thesis, not that he ignores the effects of segregation and concentrated poverty, is that the divide between city and backcountry was also brought north: “Every aspect of the underclass culture in the ghettos is directly traceable to roots in the South – and not the South of slavery but the South of a generation ago. In fact, there seems to be a strong correlation between underclass status in the North and a family background in the nascent underclass of the sharecropper South.” Lemann also found the opposite—a correlation between middle-class status in the nascent middle-class of urban Canton and mobility in the North.

Race is central to the South's culture of violence, manhood, and honor.

Moreover, race and racism involve a sense of "group position". White supremacy demands that non-whites, and blacks in particular, "know their place".

The South developed elaborate rituals and social conventions that ranged from segregated public facilities to the social norm that black people would step off the street if whites approached, avert their eyes to the ground, and assume a natural position of subordination relative to white people.

George Zimmerman's murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida--a community that was once a "sundown town"--followed a Southern cultural logic that the black body was in a space where it did not belong. Thus, Zimmerman, a man who overly identifies with Whiteness and White Authority, felt empowered to stalk, confront, and kill Trayvon Martin.

Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis because the African-American teenager, was to his eyes, disrespectful, arrogant, and "talked back". White privilege has socialized white male adults to expect a level of natural subordination and deference from (young) people of color. Michael Dunn's honor was insulted, and his sense of Southern white manhood infringed upon, because Jordan Davis did not follow his commands.

From the lynching tree, to the present with its Stand Your Ground laws, black "arrogance" is a "crime"--one punishable by death.

Dunn's perception of insult and "reasonable" threat from a black teenager who was "armed" with rap music echoes the research on interpersonal violence and how violent aggressors may actively try to provoke conflict in order to defend their perceived sense of honor.

Randall Collins' Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory offers a chillingly accurate description of the motivations driving white street vigilantes such as Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman--men who are now empowered by Stand Your Ground laws to kill:

The second source of evidence is that in honor code situations, individuals often go looking for trouble. They are not merely defending themselves against slights, peacefully minding their own business otherwise. These are precisely the scenes or recurrent situations where people are hyper-sensitive, where they do things to provoke others, to drive them to the edge. The typical micro-scenario of honor confrontations revealed in contemporary ethnography is where someone uses a repertoire of half-insults, insolent gestures, and verbal games to provoke someone int a fight. The rhetoric and the idiom is that of honor, but here the honor code is being used provocatively, not defensively; it provides an excuse for fighting while putting the onus on the other for having behaved outrageously and thus deserving the violence that follows.

Stand Your Ground laws are a script for wanton violence in which the aggressor and bully can provoke an outcome where the victim is somehow transformed into the guilty party.

In a society where whites are 350% more likely to be found innocent of killing black people under Stand Your Ground laws, and blacks are much more likely to be given the death penalty than whites, informal Southern codes of white manhood, honor, and racial violence now have the power and protection of law.

Historian and political scientist Glenn Feldman has written extensively about what he describes as the "Southernization" of American politics where the rise of the White Right, the Tea Party, and the Republican's "Southern Strategy" have had profoundly negative consequences for the country's civic culture. In keeping with Feldman's thesis, Stand Your Ground laws are exporting the South's culture of racialized violence and "honor" to the rest of the United States.

If advocates of Stand Your Ground have their way, all of America will be the new/old South. Is that a country which most Americans would want to live in?

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