The Souls of Black Folk and the Shame of the Dunn Verdict

Michael Dunn reacts after the verdict is read in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. Dunn was convicted of attempted
Michael Dunn reacts after the verdict is read in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder in the shooting death of a teenager over an argument over loud music, but jurors could not agree on the most serious charge of first-degree murder. (The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool)

Of what value is the soul of an African American teenager? Today, in America, it seems like there is not an equality of souls, of human beings, especially when it comes to the lives of young African American men.

It is clearer and clearer that in the United States African American lives are not of equal value, especially in states with "Stand Your Ground" laws where a jury was unable to reach a verdict of murder in the shooting death of unarmed, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, who is white and who has a carry concealed permit.

The unequal value placed on different human beings, according to race, is not exactly new. I have been re-reading W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk for a class I am teaching, and it is staggering how contemporary his analysis is today.

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," said Du Bois in 1903.

But in the twenty-first century, with the addition of "Stand Your Ground" laws, as was clear in the Zimmerman case, the "color line" has become a "shooting line."

As I argued on State of Belief with Rev. Welton Gaddy, "It's always been the case, in self defense for example, that if you have a way to run away, that you are supposed to do that rather than use deadly force -- that's of course in traditional legal understanding of self-defense. But now, with Stand Your Ground, that's not necessary; so you can use force, and in a lot of cases, get away with it."

Now, Dunn did not completely "get away with it," as he was found guilty of three counts of attempted second-degree murder and a count of firing into an occupied car. But on the charge of murder, the jury could not agree.

But it is telling that Dunn seemed to expect that he was entitled to kill Davis, and was shocked by the verdict, according to his attorney.

"He's in disbelief," Strolla said. "Even sitting next to me, he said, 'How is this happening?'" He said he plans to appeal.

The reason Dunn can be shocked by such a verdict illustrates the very source of the sense of entitlement racial privilege brings. Davis's life was not of equal value.

But if we think Du Bois is right, that the "souls" of African Americans are of equal human dignity and worth, then the Dunn verdict is a source of shame to the nation, because we are exposed as a people that does not value all souls equally.

I do not know if Du Bois based his title on Revelation 18, but I always think of the wisdom of this book of the New Testament on this very issue of exploitation versus the equality of souls. The Revelation to John was composed during the first century CE at the time of the slave trade in Asia Minor. This provided the basis for the critique in Revelation of commercial excess, human degradation, and oppression. A strong theme in this biblical text is the comparison of Rome to Babylon, the images of human and spiritual slavery in Revelation, and the theological meaning of suffering.

In Revelation 18, the author imagines the judgment on the merchants of Babylon (Rome) and how they weep because they cannot any longer sell "their cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (Rev. 18:13; italics added)

Is the United States Rome today, and is this message meant for a nation where the history of slavery has rendered some less than "human souls"? Yes, I think we are Rome, and this message in Revelation is meant as a profound critique of white privilege in America.

We simply must address the "color line" as the "shooting line" in the twenty-first century as it is killing our young people and just as surely is destroying the soul of the nation.