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Renisha McBride's Death and Who Gets to Be a Perceived Threat

In a case where a white man claims self-defense for shooting an unarmed black teen, we cannot ignore race's role in US justice.
Photo by AP/DetroitNews

The death of Renisha McBride can be described in two very different ways. One version tells of Theodore Wafer waking in fear on a November night in Detroit on hearing frantic pounding on his front door. The banging is violent. He reaches for his shotgun, in a panic, he opens his front door and fires the weapon. In this retelling, Wafer accidentally killed 19-year-old Renisha McBride in the belief that his person was in imminent threat.


The other possible narrative is that the young woman, seeking help after having crashed her car a few blocks away knocks desperately on Wafer's door. She is met immediately with a fatal shot to the face.

Two crucial details, in my view, should help determine which version gets to be true. McBride is black, Wafer is white. The city of Detroit has an 82 percent black population, the Detroit metropolitan area town of Dearborn Heights where Wafer lives is 86 percent white.

Jury selection began on Monday for Wafer's trial. He faces charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and the use of a gun in a crime. First-degree murder charges were not brought, on the understanding that Wafer did not intend to kill the teen. And indeed that may be true. I'd suggest that the use of a shotgun at close range is likely enough to be fatal that intentionality becomes somewhat irrelevant. However, we are dealing with the peculiar logic of a legal system bound to make excuses for homeowners with firearms.

Nonetheless, Wafer's trial poses a question more complicated than intent to kill. It rests on whether the 55-year-old had plausible recourse to shoot a firearm in "reasonable and honest" belief that it was a matter of self-defense. Self-defense is not the same as fear. We can grant that Wafer was afraid that night. What his defense must prove though is that he genuinely and with good reason believed he was in imminent threat of death or great bodily harm.


The words of McBride's aunt in the wake of her death are worth repeating here. "He shot her in the head… for what? For knocking on his door,” said Bernita Sparks. “If he felt scared or threatened, he should have called 911.” It should seem uncomplicated that, even if Wafer genuinely felt mortally threatened, this fear was not also reasonable. And so the legal criteria for self-defense should not be met here.

However aggressively the teen may have been pounding, it seems unfounded that the unarmed McBride could be reasonably perceived as an imminent, grave threat. But, as civil rights activists have pointed out, the same could have been said of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home unarmed, carrying skittles and iced tea. But his killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

Connections drawn between the two killings are significant. In both cases, the killer was not immediately charged, taking refuge in Stand Your Ground laws. Then, in the face of national outrage, when charges were brought, arguments of self-defense were mounted. In both cases, unarmed black teens were, according to defense arguments, perceived as threats so imminent as to be deserving of a gunshot. As the AP reported, however, in the McBride case "race hasn't been an issue in court in the months leading to trial."

While a court of law may consider issues of race inadmissable here, the court of public opinion should not. Indeed while it is demanded of a jury that they consider only the facts of their specific case, I'd suggest that the court of public opinion is morally obliged to draw broader connections. Martin and McBride's tragic deaths and the fact that their killers made recourse to Stand Your Ground laws and then self-defense should prompt deep concern about who gets to be a "perceived" and "imminent" threat in this country. As Rania Khalek asked, reporting on McBride's death, "In the United States, where implicit and structural racism persists on a vast scale, is it wise to empower people who almost certainly have irrational and racist fears?"

The George Zimmerman verdict indirectly asserted that it is "reasonable" to treat unarmed black youth as a deadly threat. A not-guilty verdict for Wafer would do the same. Meanwhile, in Florida — the same state in which Zimmerman was acquitted — a woman who reportedly fired a warning shot at her abusive husband appears to up against a different legal system entirely.

Marissa Alexander was on Monday denied immunity from prosecution for the second time. Alexander (a black woman and a domestic abuse victim) is facing a retrial after her 20-year sentence was overturned due to improper jury restrictions. Facing trial again, Alexander is now looking at a possible 60-year sentence for aggravated assault — three times the original sentence handed down.

To be sure, extrapolating from Alexander's, Zimmerman's, and Wafer's cases, we cannot prove an ingrained racism in the legal system. We can look to mass incarceration rates for that. But what is important about considering these three cases together is what they each show to be legible and possible in our justice system. And we see that it is considered plausible in this system that unarmed black teens are imminent, mortal threats such that they can be killed without retribution. But when a shot is aimed at the ceiling near an abusive husband, it is plausible that the punishment should be a lifetime behind bars.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard