In 1984, Bernard Goetz, a frail, white electronic engineer boarded a subway train near Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. He sat down towards the back of the car occupied by four black men. The four youths approached him and one of them said, “Mister, give me five dollars.” None of them displayed a weapon.
Goetz, said, “I have five dollars for each of you.” Then he pulled out a nickel-plated gun. They ran. Goetz shot them as they ran. One of them, Darryl Cabey, already wounded, was sitting after Goetz’s initial barrage. Goetz said to him, in his confession, “You seem to be all right. Here’s another.” He shot Cabey, severing his spinal cord. We later learned Goetz had been mugged before. Like a nerdy Charles Bronson, Goetz was riding the subway in search of revenge.
Goetz had to explain why he gunned down four unarmed black youths who asked him for a handout. He stated, “I looked at his face, and, you know, his eyes were shiny . . .. [T]hey wanted to play with me . . . like a cat plays with a mouse before, you know, it's horrible. . . . [I]t’s the confrontation, that was the threat right there. It was seeing his smile and his eyes lit up.”
No weapon, no overt threat — it was their shiny eyes. For Goetz, black, plus youth plus shiny eyes equaled criminal.
George Zimmerman may be the new Bernard Goetz. Listen to the 911 call. Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good and he’s on drugs on sump in’. It’s raining and he’s just walking around…He looks black…”
Despatcher: “Did you see what he was wearing?”
Zimmerman: “Dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He’s got his hand in his waistband…
Despatcher: “Are you following him?”
Zimmerman: “Yeah…He ran….”
Objectively, what separates the criminal from the citizen is conduct. But for both of these vigilante gunmen, Goetz and Zimmerman, conduct did not matter. It was not what they did; it was who they were.
Once you accept the idea that race plus male plus clothing equals danger, you have entered a realm of racial paranoia. Evil now wears a black face and a hoodie.
They are “bad” — and dangerous — even when they are running way. They run not to protect themselves but to “get away,” to escape justice.
Thus, both Goetz and Zimmerman claimed the right to pursue their unarmed “suspects” even as they ran from them. Zimmerman added a variation on the subway gunman’s theme: He claimed the right to question the “suspect,” even though, objectively, the “suspect” had done nothing wrong. It is the presumed dangerousness of the black male which justifies all this. And it justifies “standing your ground” when he resists arrest.
This presumption of dangerousness is not anchored in logic. It is anchored in widely shared fear of black men, in a mentality of “us versus them.” Somewhere between rap videos and shows like COPS, in which black men are constantly seen spread-eagled over police cars, black men have been stereotyped as thugs. Zimmerman, like Goetz, could not distinguish between fact and stereotype.
The specious linkage between dangerousness and race gave birth to the infamous chapter in our history when we rounded up all Japanese in “military areas” stretching from Washington State to southern Arizona — because the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor. This same linkage is also at the root of the story that all Muslims are suspicious because a small group of Muslims hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center.
It may be reasonable for Goetz, and now Zimmerman, to be fed up with crime. But it is not reasonable to say all the members of a group are suspicious because of the acts of a few.
Goetz was acquitted because the jury thought that when unarmed black men came near him it was reasonable to believe they wanted to rob him. Goetz was “a hero” for putting them down. In essence, his racism was rationalized as “common sense.”
One of my students made a similar argument. He defended the incarceration of the Japanese in the Korematsu case. He argued, “Yes, it was racist … But it was ‘reasonable racism.’” Goetz and now Zimmerman make the same argument. They acted in racist ways —neither could have gotten away with the shooting if their victims had been white. But they are “reasonable racists,” they seem to say.
Well, racism can never be “reasonable.” If Goetz and Zimmerman are right, then, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the Constitution is wrong.” If Zimmerman is right, “Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth.”
If Zimmerman is right, “justice is a lie.”
**Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law. He is the author of Race, Sex and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male.
Photo: Donald Jones