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Michael Dunn's Letters From Prison: Culture, not Race?

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This latest case of an armed white man killing a young, unarmed black male brings with it the by-now common disclaimer, "It's not about race." Yet the instance of the murder of Jordan Davis brought in a stand-in for race, and that was "culture."As Steven Hsieh at The Nation explained:

"Speaking at a press conference before the verdict, Dunn's defense attorney, Michael Stolla said, 'This is not a black-and-white issue. This is what he [Dunn] would call a subculture-thug issue. It's not about race.'"

In her account of the killer's motives, Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson had this to say: "This defendant was disrespected by a 17-year-old teenager and he lost it. He wasn't happy with Jordan Davis' 'attitude.' What was his response? 'You're not going to talk to me like that,'" Wolfson said, "He took these actions because it was pre-meditated. It was not self-defense."

In one of his letters from prison, Michael Dunn seemed to portray the issue as simply a matter of bad manners:

"Mom recalled an apartment she lived in in Key West, where a neighbor was playing music loudly. When she knocked on his door to complain, he was apologetic and somewhat embarrassed. I said that it never occurred to me that asking the parked car next to me to turn their music down would lead to a confrontation, let alone a deadly one. I never had to deal with people like this -- ever."

Note that in all these pronouncements race is elided -- ostensibly it would not have mattered if the young people playing loud music were black or white. Yet in many of his letters, Dunn makes the explicit connection between "culture" and race, even when denying it:

"I'm really not prejudiced against race, but I have no use for certain cultures. This gangster-rap, ghetto talking thug 'culture' that certain segments of society flock to is intolerable. They espouse violence and disrespect towards women. The black community here in Jacksonville is in an uproar against me -- the 3 other thugs that were in the car are telling stories to cover up their true 'colors."

The slippage in his language here could not be more clear -- culture, behavior, race are all intertwined and all look unmistakably black.

In what is by now another common facet of race-denying, Dunn shifts from claiming that he is not a racist to arguing that he is the victim of racism. This is done not out of any real grievance -- it is a legal ploy that he openly and cynically uses to turn the tables on a legal system he feels is tilted in favor of blacks.

Dunn writes: "I'm going to find a slimy civil law lawyer and sue this county for the reverse-discrimination [sic]." He goes on, and in this passage we find again the correlation between race, culture, and behavior -- "The good news is that the surrounding counties are predominantly white and republican and supporters of gun rights!... I don't want to be pre-judged and the blacks around here are doing just that. I'm falling into the same trap--prejudging the blacks--but they're making it easy to do by their actions." This all culminates with delusions of grandeur: "I don't know if I should feel like I'm a victim of reverse-discrimination or a political prisoner."

In one of the more incredible contortions to be found in his letters, in conjoining sentences Dunn writes: "It is spooky how racist everyone is up here, and how biased towards blacks all the courts are. The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs." It is hard to fathom what he means to say -- look, the courts are biased in favor of blacks, and the fact that the jail is filled with blacks is proof of that? The delink from reality just shows how naturalized, internalized, and resistant to logic racism is.

These letters tell us so much, and so much that is revealed in them is the contorted mentality of the white male race-denier. If we dare to try to follow the many twists and turns, evasions, displacements, moves of identity and dis-identification, we will find an inventory of how we in America think about race. Michael Dunn represents a certain white male culture. Not a member of the underclass -- his letters reveal a middle-aged professional who writes about government intrusion into privacy, about his work in the computer industry, who advises his family members on real estate investments and education. His sentences are in general not ill-formed, he is articulate for the most part. Where things get confused and schizophrenic is when he turns to race. In this, sadly, he is not unusual.

Let's return to culture. There is a legal notion called the "cultural defense." Kent Greenawalt glosses it as "a wide range of ways in which evidence about a defendant's cultural upbringing or practices could influence legal judgment about his guilt or responsibility."

If Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis for his culture, he did it more so for the "disrespect" he felt Davis had for his own. And this is not just about the clash between playing loud music and the deferral to a more "civil" manner -- it has to do with the way black culture did not defer to the request of Michael Dunn. Unlike the example he gives about his mother's neighbor who turned down his music so as not to disturb her, in this case Dunn could have simply driven away. His rage was about something much more than loud music, and he wanted to make a statement. In his decision to turn up the music Davis fatally underestimated the degree of rage Dunn felt, but I think Davis had, already in his seventeen years, come to know that these sorts of actions emanate from a deep core of racism, and that for him the music, as a declaration of a culture he lived as was his right and entitlement, was something to hold on to.