In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder surprised an interviewer when he said that once on a drive from New York to Washington during his college student days he was ordered out of his car by a police officer who demanded that he open his car trunk in a search for weapons. Holder said that the search left him angry and humiliated. Shortly after, President Barack Obama ticked off a litany of times that security guards in department stores and restaurants singled him out for inspection, and police officers on the street pulled him over for as he put it for "no apparent reason." Obama even cracked during a 2007 presidential debate that the one sure fire way that he knew that he was an "authentic black man" was the many times that he was ignored when he tried to hail a cab in Manhattan.
So, here's testimony from the nation's two highest ranking public officials, a president and an attorney general. Both of whom are African-American and both male. Their education, middle-class credentials, and spotless records, and later their lofty positions, was no shield from an unwarranted police stop, an overzealous security guard shadowing them in a department store, a taxi cab blowing by them on a street corner, or the dozens of other little petty slights that they had routinely suffered. The tale of racial profiling woes that Obama and Holder tell is also told by countless numbers of prominent, well to do, even celebrity entertainers, athletes, professionals and businesspersons.
Now, if their wealth, education and prominence meant nothing in a pregnant when stereotypes rudely clashed with street reality and rammed them directly in harm's way, then what chance did a Jordan Davis have to sidestep that harm? He, of course, didn't when Michael Dunn blasted away at him and his companions in parking lot of a Jacksonville, Florida store in 2012. Dunn's violent disregard for Davis was virtually validated by the jury that did not see Davis' killing as a murder, but only attempted murder.
Yet despite the outrageous implicit message that the jury sent that a black man's life isn't worth much, no matter how innocent and defenseless, the head scratching, soul searching, and spate of articles began with a vengeance after the verdict. The lecture finger wasn't solely pointed at Dunn, but also at young blacks, who, so the wrong-headed reasoning goes, if they just turned their music down, pulled their sagging pants up, stopped being loud and profane, and carried themselves like altar boys on the street, would somehow evade the fate of a Davis.
It's not exactly victim blaming, but it's a gray area that comes close to it and that's the problem. It suggests that a Davis or a Trayvon Martin might still be alive if they somehow looked and acted different, and they'd be alive if their parents taught them to act and behave differently. The brutal consequence of this is that Davis and Martin died because they conformed to the vicious and racial stereotypes about black males. But this line of reasoning ignores the glaring example of Holder and Obama and the many unnamed black businesspersons and professionals who did everything by the racial book, and still found themselves spread-eagled up against a police car or ignored in a department store or restaurant.
The hard reality is that whether it's an Obama or a Holder or a Davis or Martin, the lines are hopelessly blurred in the eyes of many who still see them not as a law abiding citizen but a thug, deviant, and societal menace.
Two studies confirmed this reality. Immediately after Obama's election, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and blacks remained frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived that those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race and poverty and crime were firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it's virtually impossible to root out. That's hardly new, either.
In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope peddling, gang bangers and drive by shooters. The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn't commit a specific crime; whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.
Five years later, university researchers wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway. It did. Researchers found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn't commit them.
Put Dunn among them; put one or more of the jurors that slapped the tainted conviction on Dunn that carried a horrible message with it among them. And sadly put far too many blacks among them who erroneously claim that if blacks just act right, they'll be OK. Obama, Holder, Martin and now Davis make nonsense of that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.