When Billie Holiday bellowed out the horrors of lynching through her eerily moving masterpiece, Strange Fruit, the brutality of the act was undeniable. Haunting images remain which display the end result of hunted, brutalized, and mutilated black bodies left to swing while white families gather to gawk, stare, and pose for the camera with celebratory pride. The mores of the day deemed it acceptable, if not expected, to kill with impunity both men and women who donned the cover of black skin. Without fear of justice or risk of retribution, in those days, the taking of black life was an all too common act of domestic terrorism. Blacks could do little to avoid it, and even less to demand legal consequence once the deadly deed was done.
Well beyond the horrific days of the lynching era, black life remains cheap in America. It is still at risk of unprovoked race-based attack. But today, the impetus is typically born of white fear. Fear which leaps to assumptions of criminality and thoughts of imminent danger. Fear, which alone, may not be lethal, but when mixed in a deadly cocktail of gun culture and laws that deem "justifiable" aggressive and deadly acts based on fear and fear alone, the end result puts Black lives at escalated risk of danger.
If we are to truly honor those lives lost and begin to address the conditions that result in such tragedies, we must face the hard truths. We must acknowledge that racism not only continues to exist in America, but is, in fact, growing. The latest national poll on the matter suggests that anti-black sentiment specifically is now present among 51 percent of Americans, ironically rising within the supposed "post-racial" Obama era. Further, other research has found a specific link between what is termed as "symbolic racism" (defined as an established anti-black feeling, which may or may not be conscious or deliberate, but nonetheless, is felt as fear, anger, unease and hostility towards blacks) and higher levels of gun ownership among whites. This relationship is strong. So much so that for every one point increase in symbolic racism, there is fully a 50 percent increase in the odds of whites having a gun in their home. So precisely those who are most likely to harbor ill will towards Blacks are much more likely to own a gun, and one could easily assume, more likely to feel justified in using it. Renisha didn't know it that night, but when she ventured into a white neighborhood and knocked on the door, the odds were already stacked against her.
Renisha's case hits home for me. As a young adult, I was Renisha McBride. Traveling home from college late one evening, my car stalled. With no cell phone, and still miles away from home, I made Renisha's choice. I walked to the nearest home and knocked on the front door. Unlike Renisha, I was met with kindness. I was taken in, allowed to use a phone, and given a warm drink while I waited for my father to come for me. In short, someone answered my cry for help. Over the years, I have honestly forgotten if that family was white or black. I just know that they responded with the kindness and humanity that every person deserves.
Today's world is certainly colder. Trust is much more difficult to come by and perhaps for good reason. But other options existed for Renisha's killer that night -- options that would have kept both him and Renisha safe. I don't claim to know what's in his heart. But the fact remains, a 19 year old girl, with her entire life in front of her, in the blink of an eye lay dead on his porch. At what point in that exchange did he negate her humanity? At what point did he choose to ignore her femininity? Did he only see her black skin and respond with homicidal fear? Would he have reacted the same if her hair was blonde, her eyes blue, and her skin, white? Cloaked within a law that protects him, we still don't know if the charges he now faces will result in a conviction. But we do know that like years gone by, another black body lays cold in a grave, and the admitted killer, may well, walk free.