Interracial Crimes Can’t Be Colorblind

Whether in Mississippi or Philadelphia, context matters.

On June 26th, 49-year-old James Craig Anderson was beaten by teenagers in a parking lot in Jackson, Miss. Then one of them, Deryl Dedmon, got into his Ford pick-up and ran Anderson over, killing him. The teens are white; Anderson was black. The murder was caught on video, which went viral.

Initial reports of the crime suggested it was racially motivated. The teens, prosecutors allege, made a deliberate decision to drive to a part of town that was populated by minorities so that they could harass African-Americans. The teens allegedly used racial slurs when they were beating Anderson, and Dedmon, who is charged with a hate crime, said, “I just ran that n**** over” as he drove away. Prosecutors say the motive was revenge because Dedmon was robbed by an African-American several weeks before.

Dedmon’s defense attorneys reject the suggestion of racial motive, saying the teens went to town to buy beer, not pick a fight, and that their interchange with Anderson was incidental. They say there’s no evidence to substantiate the claim of racial slurs.

Meanwhile, here in Philly, flash mobs of African-American teens have been attacking non-black residents. The collective motivation for the flash mobs remains obscure, but the racial makeup of the perpetrators and victims has not gone unnoticed. In yesterday’s Inquirer, Monica Yant Kinney reported that “Readers think we haven’t said enough about the galling fact that the perpetrators of these violent attacks are black and the victims, nonblack.” She quotes Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross as saying: “If you have all black kids attacking only white people, how can you think it’s not racially motivated?” But she writes that as a cop, Ross says, “he needs evidence that thugs chose victims based on racial hate to call it more.”

Law enforcement makes this distinction necessary; punishment varies depending on whether racial bias can be proven. If Dedmon is convicted of a hate crime, rather than murder or assault, his jail time will increase significantly. Because of this, when we hear about Dedmon’s case or the trials of Philly’s flash mobbers, we’re likely to hear plenty of debate about what constitutes “racial bias” and what behaviors prove it.

I realize the debate is valid for people in the criminal justice field. But I think it’s pretty much case-closed in the court of common sense. Isn’t it obvious that these crimes are, in some way, influenced by America’s never-ending struggle with the question of race? None of these events happen in a vacuum.

Let’s say Deryl Dedmon and his friends really did just inadvertently cross paths with Anderson. Let’s say the verbal altercation that broke out was about something that had nothing to do with ethnicity. And let’s say Dedmon pummeled Anderson and ran him over without saying one word about race. That might ameliorate his crime from a legal perspective, but it wouldn’t mean Anderson’s race was irrelevant. As the AP’s Holbrook Mohr wrote:

The intense focus on the case comes as Mississippi has been coming to terms with its history of racial violence, including the beating, jailing and killing of civil rights activists in the 1960s. State leaders recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and Gov. Haley Barbour signed legislation providing initial funding for a national civil rights museum.

Dedmon’s feelings about Anderson—and African-Americans in general—was surely informed by that history, and by his robbery by a black man just weeks before. There is no such thing as colorblindness in this country, and least of all in Mississippi.

Or in Philadelphia, for that matter. Is it possible for African-American kids in a city beset by racial tension to attack white people without any awareness of their being white? Even if these attacks aren’t motivated by ethnic bias, they aren’t devoid of a racial context. The flash mobs haven’t organized attacks on African-American people in Strawberry Mansion. Instead, they’re attacking nonblack people in “white” areas.

These flash-mobbers may not be consciously angry at nonblack America—Black Power probably seems kind of old-school by now. But if there’s a choice to be made between attacking a vulnerable black stranger or a vulnerable white stranger, isn’t it possible the choice is partly determined by social and personal history?

In 2008, NPR’s veteran commentator Daniel Schorr spoke about the possibility of a “post-racial America.” He said,

Post-racial began to come into vogue after Obama won the Iowa caucuses and faired well in the New Hampshire primary. The Economist called it a post-racial triumph …. The New Yorker wrote of a post-racial generation …. The wish for a post-racial politics is a powerful force.

And no match, it appears, for collective memory.

Race is the ineluctable fact of the American experience. Not every interchange between blacks and nonblacks is defined by racial difference, but we’d be naive to think it doesn’t obtain in most contexts.