THE KILLING OF RENISHA MCBRIDE
Two weeks ago—a year and four days after Moore’s children died—Renisha McBride, a nineteen-year-old African-American woman, was involved in a car accident in a Detroit suburb at around 1 A.M. In the hazy series of events that followed, McBride, who was intoxicated, knocked at the door of Theodore Wafer, a white homeowner who fired a shotgun through his screen door and killed her. It had been less than two months since Jonathan Ferrell, a twenty-four-year-old African-American, was killed by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, after crashing his car into an embankment and knocking on the door of a nearby home, whose owner called 911 to report a robbery in progress.
On Friday, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, announced that Wafer would be charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Worthy discounted the role of race in the events of that night in Dearborn Heights—her decision to bring charges, she said, had “nothing to do whatsoever with the race of the parties.” But for McBride’s family and many observers in Detroit and beyond, there is a lineage of suspicion that binds the disparate events listed above.
There is an irony at the heart of these incidents, one that is difficult to notice beneath the din of decibels with which we discuss race, crime, and fear in this country. African-Americans are both the primary victims of violent crime in this country and the primary victims of the fear of that crime. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing, defenders of George Zimmerman pointed defiantly to statistics showing that African-Americans committed a disproportionate share of violent crimes—damning stats, wielded like a collective bad report card, that no black person in this country is ever in danger of forgetting, if only for the sake of his or her own safety. But those numbers are mute on matters of actual human experience; they have nothing to say about the blink of time in which a petite grieving mother registers as a threat, or an inebriated nineteen-year-old motorist intimidates a fifty-four-year-old man who has a shotgun. There is almost a sense that McBride’s death is not news; it’s a case study—a cliché with a casualty.
It is entirely reasonable to be alarmed by an unexpected knock in the middle of the night, and it’s not difficult to imagine someone nervously answering the door with a weapon nearby. But the Rorschach moment is what happens next: is it possible to look through a cracked-open door and register Moore or Ferrell or McBride as something other than an amalgam of suspicions?
The raging debates over racial profiling forced police departments to confront the question of what constitutes reasonable suspicion, but at a time when the lines between police authority and that of the common civilian are increasingly blurred, those concerns have been partially privatized. Self-defense is now a matter of interpretation, divining the truth of what we see when we look at another person.
The week of McBride’s killing, students in an African-American history class I teach discussed the case of Rubin Stacy, an itinerant black farm worker who died in Florida in 1935. Stacy showed up unexpectedly at the Fort Lauderdale home of Marion Jones, a white woman. She screamed and her neighbors alerted police, but a mob quickly gathered and Stacy was hung from a post near the Jones residence. His lynching was commemorated witha postcard; a investigation revealed that Stacy was no thief—in the midst of the Great Depression, he was going door to door begging for food.
The circumstances of Stacy’s death are different from those of Ferrell’s and McBride’s—their killings are understood as tragedies, whereas his was a source of civic pride. But in the fractured moment when a request for help is read as something far more sinister, the calculations yield results that are all but indistinguishable.
Mourners gather after Renisha McBride’s funeral in Detroit. Photograph by Joshua Lott/Reuters.