Framing & Fear of Young Black Men in America Part II

This is part two in a two part series. In the first post, Bridget Welch explains prototypes, schemas, and framing in relation to the stereotyping of young black and Latino boys as criminals. In this piece, she relates those concepts that helps us understand charges of racism made in recent Stand Your Ground cases.

Now that you know everything you need to know about schemas, let’s put that knowledge to good use in understanding charges of racism against Michael Dunn as an exemplar of stand your ground cases.

Prior to starting, we need to answer the question: What are stand your ground laws? You can read the statues if you want (here’s Florida’s), but basically stand your ground makes the use of deadly force when you have “a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” to yourself or another. As we will see, the important component here is the idea of reasonable. Reasonable to whom?

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Michael Dunn saw a bunch of black young men listening to loud music (what he called “rap crap” in the courtroom) in a gas station parking lot. He asked them to turn down the music. They did. Dunn then reported that 17-year-old Jordan Davis pointed a gun at him (see story here). Dunn then brought out his own gun and fired ten times as the car fled, hitting Davis 3 times and killing him. No gun was ever found. Dunn was not found guilty of killing Davis, instead he was found guilty of second-degree attempted murder because of the other boys in the car.

As soon as Dunn saw the boys in that car, his schema for young black males was activated opening up all of the information he has about black boys. While I am not in his head and can’t give you the table of contents for his schema, we have a lot of information about what is most likely there.

What we know is that white Americans do largely view black boys through “fear goggles.” For example, there is research with MRI imaging that shows that white’s amygdala (the fear center of the brain) lights up when they are shown an image of a black face too quickly to consciously register. Further research indicates that white children perceive blacks performing a behavior that isn’t clearly aggressive as meaner and more threatening than they do whites performing the same exact behavior. Whites as mock jurors misremembered aggressive conduct by blacks when it didn’t even occur (and failed to remember when whites acted aggressively) (more here). And last (well not really last, I do have a word limit here), there are a whole host of studies that indicate that white Americans associate blacks with weapons such as guns and knifes.

And fear goggles have severe and sometimes deadly consequences. I covered the criminalization of black and brown boys last time. A recent study indicates that framing black boys as criminals starts very young indeed. In a study of preschools, researchers found that even though “Black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools” they made up “almost half of the students were suspended more than once.” We also racially profile them, taking away their civil rights, while not finding weapons or other contraband at the same rate of when whites are stopped and searched. We send them to prison at disproportion rates for long periods of time (for the same crime). These fear goggles ruin lives, but they also can (and have) ended them.

Research on “The Police Officer’s Dilemma” has participants view images that show either a White or Black man holding either a cell phone or a gun. In an instant, participants need to decide whether to shot or not shot. Researchers found: “Participants shoot an armed target more quickly and more often when that target is Black, rather than White. However, participants decide not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly and more often when the target is White…” In other words, they are more likely to kill an unarmed black man than even take a shot at a white one.

Given the heaps of data and findings, it is reasonable* that when Michael Dunn saw Jordan Davis he did so through his fear goggles. And, when he saw the nonexistent gun, he did so because of those fear goggles. Note that when you utilize the insights from this research you don’t even need to believe that Dunn was lying about thinking he saw a gun!

And, Jessica Williams is right. Stand your ground only works for Whites. Recent data analysis of “4,650 FBI records of homicides in which a person killed a stranger with a handgun” found that “stand your ground “tilts the odds in favor of the shooter.”  With 13.6% found justifiable in stand your ground states and only 7.2% in other states. As reported here, this finding of justifiable homicide only occurs when the victim is black and the shooter is white.

The problem is that it has been historically difficult to get a court of law (especially the Supreme Court) to see racial inequality in the justice system. Because I can’t actually download the information in Dunn’s schema, I can’t PROVE for a fact that his motives are based on race. But, can we prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? I leave that question to you.

Dig Deeper

  1. Explain what I meant when I said: “Note that when you utilize the insights from this research you don’t even need to believe that Dunn was lying about thinking he saw a gun!” Why is this the case?
  2. Answer the final question. Do you think that given all the information we have about how schemas work to label black and brown boys as criminals could indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that these crimes are racially (if not motivated) caused?
  3. Read this article about deaths related to stand your ground. What do you think the future of stand your ground laws should be? Why?
  4. Read this article (mentioned above) about how stand your ground laws are differentially applied based on race. Use the research discussed in this article to create a theoretical explanation for these findings.


*Note that just because Dunn’s actions are understandable given our understanding of how the human brain and social circumstances work, that does not mean Dunn’s actions were justified, moral, or anything like that. I want you to understand Dunn’s action, not approve/disapprove of them.