Stand Your Ground: A Deadly New Racial Disparity

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

It will take activist nonprofits and activist funders to insist on fairness in law enforcement and law enactment. 

The killing of Trayvon Martin raises the prospect of a deadly new racial disparity: unequal enforcement of “stand your ground” legislation.  Unequal enforcement of laws is not in itself a new disparity, as its documentation is widespread, but in this blogpost I’m calling out this particular one occasioned by new so-called stand your ground laws. 

A stand your ground law states that a person may use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force even in a public area without first a duty to retreat.  In Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed, state law declares a person is justified in using force…against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.

George Zimmerman is said to have shot and killed Trayvon Martin when Zimmerman, on patrol in his self-appointed role as a neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted Martin.  He called in to police and said he was following a man in a hoodie walking down the street eating from a bag of Skittles and acting suspiciously.  When confronting Martin, Zimmerman shot and killed him.  When police arrived Zimmerman said he was feeling threatened and acting in self-defense.  Zimmerman was not arrested, and was let go.

An indication of disparity arises when the situation is reversed 

 Is a black man permitted to carry a gun and use it in defense of his neighborhood whenever he feels threatened?  Can he patrol his neighborhood in search of suspicious behavior shown by, say, a man driving slowly through the streets, wearing a suit and displaying a Wall Street Journal or a mounted gun rack?  Can a black man say to police, without fear of arrest and prosecution, while standing over the body of the white man he just shot, “Just standing my ground, officers, acting in self-defense from this man dressed and acting suspiciously”?

The law might say Yes, he can.  The law looks race-neutral.  But I seriously doubt the scenario of the previous paragraph would be permitted.  I suspect that most people, blacks and whites, would say the very intent of this legislation, while not stated explicitly, is to give whites yet another tool to use the law to control blacks.

I acknowledge that putting my question and doubts out there is bold.  Am I trying to start a race war?  Do I want more white people killed just to even things up?  Of course not – I’m trying to stop a race war.  I’m trying to shed light on a race war that began hundreds of years ago with slavery, continued through the Jim Crow era, and continues through today.

I suggest our legislatures should take steps to ensure that the enforcement of this law – of all laws –  is no more harmful to one group than another.  This “stand your ground” law, enforced selectively, practically declares open season on black men.  This outrageous idea is reinforced by the image above of someone in a hoodie, used as a gun range target and sold openly in Orlando, in the same state where Trayvon Martin was killed.

And because this website focuses on the work of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, let’s recognize that two of the principal parties advocating for stand your ground legislation are themselves part of the nonprofit sector.  Both the National Rifle Association, and the American Legislative Exchange Council are 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations supported by donations from individuals and foundations and recognized by the IRS as “charitable organizations.”  It will take activist nonprofits and activist funders to insist on fairness in law enforcement and law enactment.  A law-by-law and state-by-state evaluation of disparate impact of law enforcement will reveal where progress most needs to be made.

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This blogpost was published in an earlier form to this website on May 13, 2012.  

How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., Stand Your Ground: A Deadly New Racial Disparity. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from [month, date, year]