Michael Dunn and Our ‘Dirty Harry’ Epidemic

The narratives of Dunn and Zimmerman reflect a cultural near-consensus on the idea of the threatening black criminal — and the white man who has no choice but to stop him

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Bob Mack / Florida Times-Union / Pool / Reuters

Michael Dunn raises his hands in disbelief as he looks toward his parents after the verdicts were announced in his trial in Jacksonville, Florida Feb. 15, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTX18WUL

In Michael Dunn’s mind, Jordan Davis wasn’t a teenager, goofing with his friends — he was a threat. It’s why, after his confrontation over loud music, he was prepared to shoot. “I’m looking out of the window and I said ‘You’re not going to kill me you son of a bitch,’ ” Dunn testified during his trial, “And then I shot him.”

Of course, as we know from witnesses and evidence from the crime scene, there was no gun, and Davis wasn’t a threat. But when you see yourself as another William Foster standing up against the “thugs” of your imagination, those facts fall by the wayside.

Indeed, if Dunn’s narrative of that night sounds familiar, it’s because of its similarity to George Zimmerman’s version of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. In Zimmerman’s telling, Martin “emerged from the darkness” and circled his car — like an animal out on the hunt. Zimmerman then left his vehicle to give information to the police dispatcher, at which point Martin appeared and asked “You got a problem.” Zimmerman said no, and Martin replied “You do now,” at which point he punched him in the face and told Zimmerman that he’s “going to die tonight.”

Both stories rely on particular tropes. Martin and Davis aren’t just rude or rowdy teenagers, they are dangerous intruders — aggressive thugs who can turn violent at any moment. And it’s up to the keepers of the peace — Zimmerman and Dunn — to play Dirty Harry and put them in their place. To wit, in one of his letters from prison, Dunn said as much: “This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

Of course, these tropes aren’t the inventions of isolated minds. They rely on long-standing ideas of black criminality and the inherent character of young black men, who — throughout America’s cultural history — have been portrayed as uniquely dangerous. I already mentioned Dirty Harry and Michael Douglas’ character from Falling Down, movies where rogue white men are the only ones willing to stop the drug dealers and gang bangers who are destroying our cities. But there are also movies where black men are shown as venal, criminal, and a threat to “white civilization” — like the Death Wish films and going back further to characterizations such as the freed slaves in Birth of a Nation.

You can add to this the countless real life images of young black offenders that are plastered onto local news broadcasts. This, as well, isn’t a new phenomenon. As historian Khalil Muhammad explains in his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, 19th century newspapers were rife with reports of black crime, despite the equal prevalence of crime from Irish, Italian, and other ethnic European immigrants. Blacks bore the brunt of enforcement, and it’s from this — skewed perceptions and unequal policing — that we get our stereotypes. As he writes, “Statistical evidence of excessive rates of black arrests and the overrepresentation of black prisoners in the urban North was seen by many whites as indisputable proof of black inferiority.”

As for today? Decades of research on African Americans and media representation has confirmed that black criminals receive disproportionate attention for their crimes. According to one study drawn from news reports in the Chicago area, blacks weren’t just presented in a negative light, they were frequently depicted without a name, which — as the researchers explain — feeds a “tendency to homogenize, to assume there are no significant differences among individual members of the outgroup.” They continue: “When blacks are not given a name in a picture, it suggests the visual representation can be assimilated to a larger, undifferentiated group, in this case the stereotype of a dangerous black male.”

Put simply, the narratives of Dunn and Zimmerman reflect a cultural near-consensus on the idea of the threatening black criminal. And, when trying to explain the verdicts in both cases — Zimmerman’s acquittal and Dunn’s hung jury on the count of first degree murder — it’s worth considering the extent to which they found receptive audiences; jury members who believed their stories, or at least, could empathize with their fear of “thugs.” After all, these are things they see and hear every day, from images in the paper, to hysterical reports of the (widely debunked) “knockout game.”

One last thing. Whenever these shootings are in the news — and whenever the discussion turns to racism — there are calls for commentators to focus on the “real” problem of “black-on-black crime.” Setting aside the fact that there’s no distinct phenomenon called “black-on-black crime” (or, if there is, our concern should also extend to “white-on-white crime”), we should remember two things: First, that black men who kill black men are almost always convicted; and second, that white men who do the same often aren’t.

The issue isn’t that whites are the greatest criminal threat to blacks, it’s that when they are a criminal threat, they are more likely to get away with it than the reverse. That is the injustice, and that is why discussions of racism aren’t just necessary — they’re vital.

Jamelle Bouie is a Washington-based journalist and staff writer at The Daily Beast who covers politics and national affairs. He is @jbouie on Twitter.