Call it black blindness.
It is a kind of myopia that afflicts some of us -- too many of us -- whenever we gaze upon a dark-skinned man. It causes some of us -- too many of us -- to see things that are not there, and to miss things that are. Sometimes, it is fatal.
Such was the case for Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant who died in a hailstorm of gunfire in 1999 after police mistook his wallet for a gun.
We cannot yet know if black blindness was the cause of death for Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old black kid who was killed the night after Thanksgiving. But there is reason to suspect it was. Davis was shot by a 45-year-old white man, Michael David Dunn, who says he saw a rifle. At this writing, police have recovered no such weapon.
The altercation began with an argument in a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn had pulled in so his girlfriend could go to the convenience store. In an SUV next to him were Davis and three other teenagers playing their music too loudly. Dunn told them to turn it down. An argument ensued. Dunn's attorney, Robin Lemonidis, says the teenagers peppered him with obscenities and insults. Then, she says, Davis poked a rifle through an open window, threatened her client and began to open the door of the SUV. Dunn reached for his pistol and came up firing. The SUV peeled out. Dunn kept shooting at it because, his lawyer says, he feared the teenagers might come back after him.
"There is no racial motivation here whatsoever," she told The New York Times. But even if you buy that, Dunn's story still has holes in it you could drive a SUV through. Consider: someone's got a gun trained on you, about to shoot, yet you have time to reach for your glove box, open it, unholster your weapon and bring it up? Not even Little Joe Cartwright was that fast on the draw.
Then there's the fact that afterward, Dunn and his girlfriend went to a hotel. You've been threatened, you had to shoot to save your life .?.?. and you go to a hotel? You don't alert authorities about this SUV full of dangerous kids roaming the streets?
Dunn, says Lemonidis, did not realize he had killed Davis until he saw the news the following morning. Yet, he still did not contact authorities, instead driving home to Satellite Beach, Fla., about 175 miles south, intending to turn himself in to a neighbor who has law enforcement ties. Police, who had gotten his license plate number from witnesses, soon arrived to arrest him.
So Dunn's story is shaky without the overlay of race.
With it, with the obvious comparisons to the killing of Trayvon Martin, one can only wonder if black blindness has not claimed yet another victim. That is a danger all over the country, but particularly in Florida, whose misbegotten Stand Your Ground law essentially licenses any citizen to use deadly force against any other citizen so long as the first citizen claims he or she felt threatened.
Sure enough, Lemonidis is considering just such a defense for her client.
The frightening thing, if you are a young African-American man, is that you know nothing makes some folks feel more "threatened" than you. Nor do you threaten by doing. You threaten by being. You threaten by existing. Such is the invidious result of four centuries of propaganda in which every form of malfeasance, bestiality and criminality is blamed on you.
In such an environment Florida's law inevitably becomes a potential "Get Out Of Jail Free" card for anyone who shoots a young black man. So this death, besides being a tragedy for the grieving family of one boy, is a sobering reminder for the family of every boy who looks like him.
And until or unless there is a definitive answer, they -- we -- must ponder with heartsick urgency one simple question:
What did Michael Dunn really see? And why?
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.