Opinion

I Could Have Been Michael White

Why are Black men always seen as the predators, not the victims?

Michael White in his Philadelphia Police Department mugshot.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Michael White does not have a criminal record. According to court records, he was charged with possession of marijuana, theft, receiving stolen property, possession of an instrument of crime with intent to employ it criminally, and conspiracy in November 2017. In January of 2018, he was entered into an Accelerated Misdemeanor Program and was ordered to pay fines and complete community service. We regret the error.

Black boys don’t ever get to be helpless, vulnerable, or in desperation. They’re always a threat, whether they choose to be or not.

I was reminded of this one night a few years ago when my pocket blade was confiscated while I was being patted down outside a bar in Old City. I was 21 at the time and hadn’t explored the city much outside of the Gayborhood and my college residence in University City. The bouncer, with suspicion in his eyes, interrogated me on why I was carrying a pocket blade in the first place.

“For self-defense. You know how hard it is out here,” I said back.

“You of all people don’t need to worry about self-defense. Come on now, really?” He laughed.

His point was clear: A Black man can never be the target, only the predator. The bouncer’s dismissal was the same one I got when I told my peers that I felt unsafe walking off-campus late at night. Being Black, gay, and young, I’ve always been concerned about what possible hate can come my way while living within these multiple identities.

When I saw the mugshot of 20-year-old college student Michael White, who is now charged for murder in the high-profile stabbing death of Philadelphia real estate developer Sean Schellenger, I felt numb.

Because his killer could have been me or any other young Black boy who’s encountered a similar confrontation.

White, of Kingsessing, has been charged with murder and possession of an instrument of crime. He peacefully turned himself in through a clergy-based surrender program less than two days after he allegedly stabbed Schellenger during a traffic dispute near Rittenhouse Square.

Although all the facts in the case aren’t clear, there are some important details we can’t ignore.

White is a local poet who was finishing up his education at Morgan State University, a historically Black college, studying sociology/anthropology. He was also not in the wrong place at the wrong time — he was working a summer job with Uber Eats making deliveries on his bike around Rittenhouse Square. Relatives of White claim he carried the knife that was used in Schellenger’s death for self-defense when working late nights. And that’s exactly why they suggest White used his knife: in self-defense during a confrontation with three “heavily intoxicated” men, including Schellenger. The family argues that White “felt he was being racially targeted by these individuals, who wanted to start a fight.”

Since news of the killing broke last Friday, there have already been conflicting reports surrounding the role of the two men who were with Schellenger. For starters, one of the men still has yet to be publicly identified. The other man, Philadelphia restaurateur Norris Jordan, who was driving the Mercedes the three men were in, claims he did not get out of the car to confront White — despite an earlier statement by Homicide Capt. John Ryan, who said all three men got out of the car on Chancellor Street, near 17th.

The racial implications surrounding Schellenger’s death are hard to ignore. For one, if Schellenger was Black, his past run-ins with the law — including disorderly conduct, burglary, resisting arrest, criminal trespassing, and theft charges — would likely have been highlighted even more in the media. We were reminded in headlines that slain Black teenager Travyon Martin was “no angel,” even though he didn’t have a criminal record. What’s more, while all the information in this case hasn’t surfaced, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has already held a candle-light vigil for Schellenger and has spoken positively about him to the press. This same level of concern from elected officials wasn’t given to local Black victims, including the slain Brandon Tate Brown and David Jones, who were killed extrajudicially by law enforcement.

These double standards are a jarring reminder of how far we still are from confronting racial bias in Philadelphia. I know for certain that if Michael White had been a white boy delivering food in Rittenhouse Square and was confronted by three Black men, self-defense would have been the automatic plea — just as it often is for any white man who kills an unarmed Black person in America.

What happened to Michael White could have happened to me five years ago. And it could still be the reality for the next Black boy who faces potential danger while doing his job. I am left wondering what I would have done if I’d been placed in the same position White was. I fear that acting similarly to White would have led to the same outcome.

As we all watch the findings of this case unfold, we must check our own personal biases in how we talk about criminal justice and empathize with victims. One thing is certain: two men unexpectedly had their lives impacted in a matter of seconds. And as much as we would like to presume that justice has a blind eye, it often tends to see black and white.