“I hate that thug music.”
This, according to Rhonda Rouer’s testimony last week, is what her fiancé, Michael Dunn, said when they pulled into a Jacksonville, FL gas station next to an SUV full of black kids who had the stereo up high, pumping some obnoxious, bass-heavy rap.
Rouer was inside the convenience store when she heard the shots. Dunn, who is white, had gotten into an argument with the young men about their music, had gone into his glove box for his pistol, and started shooting. As the SUV tried to get away, he fired still more rounds. At least one of those rounds fatally struck 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Dunn drove to his hotel. He did not call police. He ordered pizza. The next morning, he drove home to Satellite Beach, 175 miles south, where police arrested him. Dunn claimed he shot at the SUV because Davis threatened him with a gun. Davis was unarmed.
Dunn is now on trial for murder. He’s claiming self-defense in the November 2012 shooting, saying he felt threatened, though his victim wielded nothing more dangerous than the aforementioned “thug” music.
And we need to talk about that word a moment. But first, let’s try a thought experiment: Close your eyes and picture a California girl. Close your eyes and picture a chess prodigy.
Chances are, you saw the former as a sun-kissed blonde in a bikini running along a beach in slow motion and the latter as a studious-looking boy in owlish glasses. Chances are you saw both of them as white.
Now, close your eyes and picture a thug.
It is exceedingly likely the person you pictured was black, like Jordan Davis.
The point is, the words we use are often encoded with racial presumptions and expectations. Thus, your image of a California girl is more likely to resemble Farrah Fawcett (born in Corpus Christi) than Tyra Banks (born in Los Angeles) and your idea of a prodigy will not include Phiona Mutesi, a teenage chess champion from Uganda.