Theodore Wafer and the Nature of Prejudice
The tragedy of Renisha McBride can not be understated. It is unlike stories of police officers being required to make split second decisions of life and death or where an argument/altercation gets out of control and gun violence ensues, this was a young woman who was in a terrible situation. She had gotten into a car accident and needed help. In this scenario, death by gun is hardly ever the expected end result of such a situation. Usually we think the best instincts prevail, she finds the help she needs or maybe she doesn’t receive the help she needs fast enough and her young life ends all too soon. But a gun death exceeds all reasonable expectation.
Theodore Wafer’s decision to protect his home with a shot gun will reverberate in his life and the lives of all who knew Renisha McBride because he made a decision that defied reasonable expectation. In checking out the news coverage on this I again see the explanation: “I was in fear of my life.” A similar refrain to Jordan Davis’ and Trayvon Martin’s murderers as well. Indeed there are many instances where we as individuals fear for our lives; drivers running red lights, fights in bars, getting into a car accident, etc. The statement itself is legitimate, it’s use in the above three cases however is a misnomer. When you have the gun and others don’t, your fear is negligible to the situation, you can kill, and kill quickly.
Michael Dunn, George Zimmermann, and Theodore Wafer all made poor decisions by deciding to use a gun when other options were immediately available to them; disengaging from the altercation, calling the cops, or not getting involved in the situation to begin with. However they found themselves in such situations, Zimmermann and Dunn in particular, found themselves in a circumstance filled with animosity on both sides. They started it, their victims engaged them, and then they finished it with gun violence.
Race has been a big issue in all three of these cases, because as outlined above, when simply laying out the facts, regardless of race, sex, religion or any other signifier of separation humans use to categorize ourselves; the rational consensus is, “Do better, don’t use guns as a balm for your own recklessness.” However when you add in that all three victims are black and all three assailants are white; you necessarily find yourself with the conundrum of, “Was this race related? Was prejudice why these kids are dead and their assailants are alive?” The answer is far from a clear and resounding “Yes!”, but enough background has been done on all three gun owners to show that race probably played a role, but not necessarily in the way most think.
When we rally and say that black lives should have equal value to white lives, what we mean is that black people shouldn’t lose their lives, resources, livelihood, or reputations at any higher rate than whites do. Because a discrepancy in those numbers points to clear differences in how the two races interact, engage, and get treated by the society around them. So if all things being equal, race and specifically racial discrimination, must be the reason why one group has more positive instances of social progress in their lives and why another group does not. These differences are real, no doubt. But those differences are not always easily quantified. In the cases of the above three murders, race plays a role, but to what extent and in what way? Namely prejudice. Prejudice is most likely the reason a man sees a stranger outside his door and in not seeing white skin, became fearful of the ubiquitous ‘black criminal’. But prejudice isn’t an easy concept. It will not always show up in a bigoted person’s consciousness as, “Black people are criminals and not to be trusted,” a truly and undeniably racist thought. It often ends up as an action and only later does the person realize that they might have made a decision on a prejudice they didn’t know they had.
When these assailants and their family and friends cry, “They’re not a racist!” our collective reaction is usually an eye roll and followed by a ‘yeah, right’. But we may want to take these declarations to heart. Prejudice isn’t always about KKK levels of hate and discrimination, it’s often times information that’s been processed unconsciously; a rap video full of violence, hearing on the news about a rap beef gone wrong, black people’s depictions in movies and tv shows as gangsters, drug dealers, corrupt businessmen, etc.
So when Theodore Wafer opened his door and saw a black face, his trigger finger quite possibly twitched in unconscious fear and agitation because of perceptions his awake, conscious mind was not even unaware of. In a study on unconscious prejudice this happened, “A brain area involved with fear flashes more actively when white college students are exposed to subliminal views of black versus white faces. The students didn’t actually “see” the faces, which were sandwiched between two patterns they viewed while undergoing brain scans. But they had a clear, deep-brain reaction to them.” Literally just the ‘visual ghost’ of a black person caused fear in the white participants of the study. And then, “When white subjects undergoing brain scans see the black face long enough for it to register consciously, brain areas involved with controlled thinking become active. The differences in reactions to black and white faces then decrease.” So only after really paying attention to visual cues were participants able to think and behave rationally.
Often times, particularly with self help and tough love folks, people will say ‘you’re solely responsible for your actions.’ And I don’t disagree with that, but a subtler and complex thing is at play when we make our decisions. We may be conscious, like ‘I’ll pick the red flower instead of the pink,” but do you know why you pick one over the other? It might seem like a cop out for white people to go on being racist but the reality is that, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.” Prejudice is a negative categorization of others, but it’s also a very natural process as well.
When we discuss combating racism, we need to include more understanding of the biology and psychology of the mind as well. Even conscious decisions are rarely made without a lingering and under cover motive and they are frequently made without the person’s knowledge that this unconsciously processed information influences their decision. In the fight against racism, empathy and diversity are the most important factors because they help us ‘see’ each other. We are able to place ourselves in the shoes and the lives of others. We’re able to imagine their pain, their joy, their reasons for bad decisions, their remarkable strengths, and their remarkable flaws. But prejudiced knee jerk reactions without understanding the context will be the death of us all, from the white gun owner, to the outraged activist and everybody in between.
Additional Note: I wrote this right before the verdict for Theodore Wafer came in. For once someone in a position of white privilege received justice, but Theodore Wafer and the recent shooting of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell shows racial violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. This is a ubiquitous problem and the solutions might require more tools than we’ve previously used before to combat racism.