Sunday, February 16, 2014

Black & ___________ : Seeking Meaning Around Words and Deeds

The Michael Dunn verdict adds to our collective disappointment around race and justice in the United States. I share the frustrations that Mr. Dunn's conviction does not seem to address the crime committed. Students approached me about the trial and I'm sure some will ask about the verdict. I will be honest with them. I will explain that I agree with comments that racism mattered in this case. I will discuss how a systematic prejudice linked to African Americans (especially males) in the public sphere allows violence against their persons.  I will point out that the mechanisms that created and encouraged this way of thinking are greatly diminished, but the legacy persists. However, rather than rest on statements alone, I decided to illustrate my point using Google Ngram, a phrase-usage graphing tool integrated into Google Books. Below is a series of usage charts between words used as racial descriptors for African Americans such as negro, blacks, and colored and several American English words in books printed between 1800 and 2000. I omitted African American from the comparison because it came into use late in the 20th century.
Google Ngram functions by searching millions of scanned texts. This tool shows the association between words over time.  Thus, the relationship between black and gun versus blacks and gun suggests a pattern of collective thinking shaping their use in printed material. The implication provides some window into comments from social critics.  Despite civil rights activism, racialized thinking links people of African descent to incivility. Based on that association, those that are inclined to do so can react violently against black people. Michael Dunn's claim of self-defense should give us pause, not because he claimed it, but because the jury could accept it.  However, their actions merely affirmed what the collective narrative suggests, that black equates to dangerous.   Using that logic a rational white person faced with a black person (especially a group of black people) acting outside the strict bound of civility (whatever that may be) should fear bodily harm.  I hesitate to suggest a reversal of those circumstances would provide a different legal outcome (I leave it to your imagination). Instead, my goal, the best goal for anyone, is to consider the intersection of culture and history.  The words we use to tell our collective story point to an anti-black sentiment in the public sphere.  If we can raise awareness of the historical legacies that are influencing our contemporary,  perhaps we can overcome its effects.

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