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Joe McKnight and the fear of the black man

More times than not, white people can lawfully fear for their lives for coming into contact with African-Americans

Back in 2012, following the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, comedian and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart‘s “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore discussed the racial implications of Zimmerman, who is white and Peruvian, shooting and killing a black male and initially not being charged with a crime. It wasn’t capital-R racist that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin and his hoodie, or that the neighborhood watch volunteer ignored the police’s instructions to not follow the teenager. No, the case came down to the idea of the “benefit of the doubt,” that Wilmore declared white people like Zimmerman are given by police, specifically, and society, generally, that would never work in the favor of African-Americans like the slain 17-year-old.

“According to ‘stand your ground,’ as long as Zimmerman felt threatened, he had the right to respond with lethal force,” Wilmore told a comically befuddled Stewart. “With this defense, you don’t even have to go in front of a jury. You tell the cops at the scene of the crime you were standing your ground, and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. That’s the culprit.”

“Wait, black people don’t get the benefit of the doubt?” Stewart responded.

“In shooting cases? It’s the one entitlement black people can’t get from the government, Jon,” Wilmore joked.

Humor aside, more times than not, white people can fear for their lives when they come into contact with African-Americans, and society believes in that fear.


On Dec. 1, former University of Southern California and New York Jets running back Joe McKnight was gunned down in a New Orleans suburb following a car accident. The alleged shooter, 54-year-old Ronald Gasser, was taken into custody and questioned by police following the shooting, but was released early Dec. 2 from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

A week hasn’t even gone by, but those who have been paying attention since at least Feb. 26, 2012, when Martin was killed, already know how this all will play out. Gasser will claim he feared for his life. Cable news pundits will debate the sanctity of Gasser’s life and what McKnight could have possibly done to get himself shot. The jury will consist of only one or two black people. They will acquit. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Joe McKnight #25 of the New York Jets walks off the field after a game against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium on November 22, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Joe McKnight of the New York Jets walks off the field after a game against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 22, 2012, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Outside of his friends and family, no one really knows Gasser, but there will be those who jump to his defense. (Within weeks of being charged with murder in 2012, Zimmerman raised over $200,000 through a crowd-funding website.) We’ll hear from old high school buddies who can’t believe ol’ Ronald could do such a thing. Colleagues will swear by Gasser’s honor. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, despite Gasser’s previous run-in with the law, already believe enough in him to set him free.

We’ve seen this “benefit of the doubt” work for white people before. From a woman threatening to slit a police officer’s throat and being acquitted to another white woman swinging a machete at police and not being shot, all the way to an armed man jumping out of a trunk, attacking an officer, and living to talk about it. The Bundy family has aimed guns at federal officers and took over a federally-owned wildlife sanctuary, yet they’re all still accounted for today. No matter the case, white people are given liberties black people are simply not afforded.

Despite notifying a Minnesota police officer that he had a licensed firearm in his pants pocket, Philando Castile was shot seven times by officer Jeronimo Yanez in July. (Juxtapose that incident with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity explaining a similar episode he’s had with the police before.)

Imagine, for a second, a black man shooting and killing someone.

Cardell Hayes fatally shot former New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Will Smith in April following a car accident. Despite recently reported information, Hayes is still in jail awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and second-degree attempted murder. No matter the possible innocence of Hayes, and Louisiana’s own version of a “stand your ground” law, because of the way Hayes looks — and the celebrity of the man he killed — he never had a chance of walking out of the police building the night of the shooting.

That’s because the idea of a black man being a law-abiding citizen is a form of cognitive dissonance. Which is why a law like “stand your ground” was never intended for African-Americans, and why the National Rifle Association is reluctant to defend the rights of all gun owners.

Zimmerman, unknowingly, designed a playbook over four years ago that plays off that fear of blacks for the benefit of white Americans. That fear, coupled with the normalization of white supremacy over the past year is what led to the death of McKnight last week.

(It should be noted that in recent years Zimmerman has been accused of threatening his ex-wife with a gun, arrested multiple times after being accused of domestic abuse by his girlfriend, accused of gloating about Martin’s death, and last month was accused of using a racial slur at a Florida bar and being “belligerent” toward a law enforcement officer. He was not convicted of a crime in any of those instances.)

Whether it’s racists on cable television or in U.S. Senate races, or writing multiple feature stories about them, it’s become almost status quo to have some form of fear of nonwhites. Between television ratings and YouTube views, over 3 million people saw controversial conservative TV host Tomi Lahren struggle to tell the difference between Black Lives Matter protesters and the Ku Klux Klan on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Balloons, flowers and stuffed animals well-wishers left at the intersection where ex-NFL player Joe McKnight was shot Thursday and killed during a road rage incident in Terrytown, La., Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. A sheriff said the man who shot McKnight in the incident was involved in an altercation a decade ago in which he struck another driver.

Balloons, flowers and stuffed animals left at the intersection where ex-NFL player Joe McKnight was shot Dec. 1 and killed during a road rage incident in Terrytown, Louisiana. A sheriff said the man who shot McKnight in the incident was involved in an altercation a decade ago in which he struck another driver.

AP Photo/Rebecca Santana

Saturday Night Live perfectly summed this up during its critically acclaimed Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks in October. When black host Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson) walks up to congratulate Hanks’ character, an exaggerated illustration of the “economic anxiety” voter from this past election cycle, he steps back with his hands up in fear. No matter how much blacks and rural whites have in common, blacks are still viewed as a threat.

Historically, African-Americans have been viewed as “savage and animal-like,” and white Americans have shown a growing fear of the racial shift in the country and show more “negative evaluations” of racial minorities. A recent nonpartisan research poll found that a majority of white voters during the 2016 election believe America has changed for the worse since the 1950s despite the increase in civil rights for African-Americans, women and the LGBT community. Most supporters of President-elect Donald Trump cited immigration and terrorism as the most important issues of the presidential election, which, it can be assumed, plays a major role in the recent uptick of incidences of hateful intimidation and harassment.

As Very Smart Brothas founder/writer Damon Young pointed out the day after the election, “White people did not vote against their self-interests. They may have voted against a self-interest — a few actually — but not their most important one: the preservation of White supremacy. Retaining the value of a Whiteness they believed to be increasingly devalued superseded everything else.”

This preservation of white supremacy is what brings us back to Gasser and McKnight. Gasser probably isn’t a racist. He’s probably never said the N-word. He probably doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. But his believed fear of a 5-foot-11, 205-pound black man led to him shooting three rounds from inside his car. That believed fear got him detained without resistance by police. That believed fear got him released hours later despite taking the life of another man. Of course this white man felt his life was in danger. And for all that, Gasser received the benefit of the doubt.

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"