Monday, December 3, 2012

Listening to Music While Black

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Jordan Davis was shot to death because his music was too loud. It wasn’t because he was aggressive toward the man who killed him. It wasn’t because Davis had a shotgun; police have found no such gun. No, Jordan Davis, a seventeen year old high school student, was shot because his music was too loud. And, of course, because he was Black.

Davis was shot over the Thanksgiving weekend in a Jacksonville, Florida convenience store parking lot. He and some friends were sitting in an SUV listening to the stereo. Michael Dunn, whose fiance was inside the store, stopped and asked if Davis and his friends could turn down the music.

The teens obliged. When they turned it back up, however, things evidently got heated. Public details are still sketchy, but what’s certain is that Dunn went to his glovebox, pulled out his 9-millimeter, and fired eight times into the SUV. Two of the bullets struck Davis, who was in the back seat, and killed him.

Dunn has been arrested, but his defense team have wasted no time in trying to slander Davis and his friends, in order to paint him as a dangerous thug. They claimed that Davis had rolled down his window and pointed a shotgun at him before opening the door. Once again, no gun has been found, either in his friend’s SUV or in the surrounding area. Dunn is pleading not guilty and claiming immunity under the state’s infamous “stand your ground” law.

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And having a red-faced goon like O'Reilly near your network isn't a good thing either.
It’s a script we’ve heard recited so many times before. Parallels have rightly been drawn between Davis’ murder and that of Trayvon Martin this past February. Both involve apparently unarmed, seventeen year old Black males, profiled by an armed, white self-appointed vigilante.

And, significantly enough, both involved some kind of cultural marker so often used in racist America to deem Blacks a “threat.” In Martin’s case it was a hoodie pulled up over his head. For Davis, loud music is evidently enough to signify you as a potential murderer.

Invoking Emmett Till, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry put it succinctly: “Then, it was a whistle at a white woman. Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car.”

None of the coverage of Davis’ murder has revealed what artist or song was blasting out the car’s speakers. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of music raises the umbrage of a forty-five year old white gun collector in Florida.

People like Michael Dunn obviously don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the midst of a hodgepodge of ideas constantly swirling around all forms of culture, including (and perhaps most especially) surrounding “urban” music genres like R&B or rap. Despite raking in untold billions for record labels, the styles are still looked upon with suspicion by a segment of mainstream (read: white) America. In fact, it seems that as many of the most right-wing ideas are pushed to the margins, their most prominent spokespeople have become increasingly vicious in their scapegoating of hip-hop.

Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly. The nut-job face of Fox News loves -- seriously, loves -- to go after hip-hop culture. Over the years he’s scapegoated Snoop Dogg, Common, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and other rappers on his show. More recently he’s used wide support for Obama among rap’s most famous as a way to paint the prez as the great enabler of food stamps and welfare.

Writing for the Grio, Camilo Smith sums up this hatred:

“He knows conservative Fox viewers love to be stirred by the other world that is hip-hop. No matter how mainstream the culture and music has become, there’s still a segment of (White America) who thinks that rap is all guns, gangsters, strippers and saggy jeans, and only focused on the worst of black America.”

This, of course, dovetails well with O’Reilly’s recent explanation that Obama’s reelection; that America isn’t as white as it once was, and that young people of color “want stuff.”

Not that liberalism has exactly provided these loose demographics with all the “stuff” they want, or, for that matter, need. Black unemployment has gone up on Obama’s watch. Now with his “grand bargain” on the horizon, his potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security will disproportionately affect poor people of color.

His milquetoast responses to Trayvon’s murder, compounding his relative silence on the murders of Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and others like him, have revealed him to be about as concerned with racist violence as most past presidents (which is to say not at all). During his first term, the percentage of people who hold a “negative view” of African Americans actually went up, from a slight minority to a slight majority.

It has to be said that this isn’t exactly a surprise. Shoulder brushes aside, Obama has been all-too-willing to play the personal responsibility card when it comes to issues of racism and poverty. And just as with any moment when racism has come to the forefront, Obama has done little more than shrug any time hip-hop has been under attack.

One might go so far to say that, in fact, Obama has merely enabled America’s right-wing to keep up their bigotry. It wouldn’t be the first time a liberal president has done so, would it?

Bring it back to Jacksonville. Bring it back to the mind of Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man who resides in a privileged and heavily white section of Florida (Satellite Beach, where Dunn resides, is almost 95 percent caucasian). He’s the vice president of a software development company, is a lifelong gun collector and member of the National Rifle Association. Here is a man who falls into an almost textbook example of the white well-to-do conservative, clinging to his privilege (or in his mind his rights) against his own delusions of an America under attack from thuggish hordes of welfare recipients. It’s not hard to see why to this man, a bit of booming bass in a parking lot might be the sound of his own march into oblivion.

Perhaps Dunn could hear in each rhyming couplet the imminent tearing down of the walls surrounding his own gated community world. He could have just ignored the music, just as George Zimmerman could have seen a young man with a hood pulled up over his head and decided to mind his own business. But neither Zimmerman nor Dunn did that. Instead, they saw something “Black.” Then they saw red.

“Listening to Music While Black.” It may very well take its place in the vernacular next to “Driving While Black” and “Walking While Black,” yet another activity that African Americans may have to look over their shoulder while doing. And once again, we’re forced to ask exactly what it is that African Americans can do safely in a country so deeply racist as the United States.

First published at Red Wedge magazine

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