Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why are black murder victims put on trial?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
November 15, 2013 -- Updated 2127 GMT (0527 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Renisha McBride, black teen, was shot dead after knocking on a white homeowner's door
  • Family says she needed help; homeowner says he feared she was breaking in
  • LZ: If a black man said he shot unarmed white girl in the face in "self defense" he would be in jail
  • LZ: Our culture "looks at a black corpse and puts it, instead of the perpetrator, on trial"

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is a senior writer for ESPN as well as a lecturer at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Renisha McBride's toxicology report is out and now we know the 19-year-old had a blood-alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit for driving. This would explain why, according to her family, she was involved in a single-car accident.

However, it does not explain why Theodore Wafer shot her in the face.

McBride's family says she was seeking help after the crash and knocked on the door of Wafer's house in Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The 54-year-old Wafer, who is white, told investigators he feared McBride, who is black, was trying to break in.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

There are too many unanswered questions to know exactly what happened that night. But we do know this: If a black man told police officers "self-defense" was the reason why he shot an unarmed white teenage girl in the face with his shotgun, it would not have taken protests, national media attention and nearly two weeks for authorities to reject that excuse.

And this is why McBride's death -- ruled a homicide after protests and national media attention -- draws comparisons to that of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who is of white and Latino heritage, last year.

Not that the events leading up to their shootings are identical. They are not.

But statistics show the benefit of doubt granted to those who have spilled black blood is not extended as graciously when roles are reversed. In other words, if someone told you a black man stalked, confronted and eventually murdered an unarmed white teenage boy, it's doubtful "self-defense" would get him off the hook.

And it shouldn't, because that sounds ridiculous.

But when the victim is black, the narrative that has historically characterized blacks as a menace -- the narrative that gets supported by out-of-context crime statistics, pop culture imagery and media coverage -- assigns culpability and thus plausibility.

Ebony Magazine: "We Are Trayvon"
Trayvon's mother: Use my tragedy
Feds reportedly meet with Martin family

On Friday, Wafer was finally charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. We're finally on the road to finding out the truth, and perhaps even achieving justice for McBride. But will another high-profile, racially charged murder trial get us any closer to debunking the strain of thinking that places "fear for one's life" and an unarmed, dead black person in the same scenario far too often?

This is the same idea that says it's completely reasonable for the NYPD to continue to "stop and frisk" — a practice that disproportionately targets black people, despite its resulting in confiscation of a gun one-tenth of one percent of the time.

It's the idea that says two police officers, who fired 15 shots at an unarmed, 60-year-old black man in his own driveway, are the victims.

It's the idea that says there's no need to quickly make an arrest -- even though McBride's unarmed body is lying in a pool of blood and the nearby weapon is still warm -- because the killer may have "acted as a reasonable person would who was in fear for his life," as Cheryl Carpenter, the lawyer of the alleged shooter, claims.

Between 2005 and 2010, an Urban Institute study, using FBI data, found that white-on-black shootings were found to be justified 11.5% of the time in states that don't have stand-your-ground laws and 17% of the time in those that do -- the highest among all combinations. Black-on-white homicides were ruled to be justified 1% of the time in stand-your-ground states and even less frequently in states without the law.

Now, obviously statistics don't reveal the circumstances surrounding each shooting, but they do reinforce the narrative that black people are inherently more dangerous.

Thus Pasadena police were found "justified" in killing a black, unarmed 19-year-old college student who was falsely accused of robbery. Los Angeles police who shot and killed an unarmed black, autistic 27-year-old did so "in defense of their lives" according to their attorneys.

It's the same fear that led four police officers to fire 41 shots at an unarmed black man on the stoop of his New York apartment in 1999, hitting him 19 times. It's the same fear that led an officer to shoot and kill an unarmed 24-year-old black man who, like McBride, was reportedly in a single car accident and went out looking for help earlier this year.

You can tell yourself all these stories are just tragic one-offs if it makes you feel better. Parents of black children don't have the luxury.

Sure, there are plenty of examples of blacks committing crimes but how does that justify pre-emptive strikes? How does that make substituting "open season" with "self-defense", OK?

I remember something former NFL player Dhani Jones once told me: "A lot of upper-middle-class black people hear reports about a black athlete and assume he's guilty. ... If he's innocent, they'll see it more as a special case than the norm."

This attitude extends to society as a whole.

Assuming black people are inherently up to no good is not just something some white people are guilty of. There are blacks who are leery of blacks as well. That is the power of the narrative.

That is the subtlety of institutionalized racism. It doesn't wear a hood or burn crosses in a yard. Rather it's the subconscious element of our culture that looks at a black corpse and quietly puts it, instead of the perpetrator, on trial.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT