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What the death of Jazmine Barnes tells us about racial anxiety in America

Barnes’s death wasn’t a hate crime, but it was amplified by a very real fear of them.

LaPorsha Washington attends Houston rally
LaPorsha Washington attends a Houston rally for her daughter, Jazmine Barnes, on January 5, 2019.
William Chambers/The New York ​Times/Redux

It’s been more than a week since the death of Jazmine Barnes, a 7-year-old black girl who was killed when a gunman opened fire on her family’s car in Houston, Texas, captured national attention. And in that week, public understanding of what happened that day has changed significantly — sparking a contentious debate about race and the role it played in attention to Barnes’s death.

It was still dark outside on December 30 when Barnes accompanied her mother and three sisters on a trip to the store for some early-morning coffee. As they drove, a gunman fired on their car, striking Barnes’s mother, LaPorsha Washington, in the arm. Jazmine, a second-grader, was struck in the head and died before her family could get to a hospital.

Witnesses, including Jazmine’s older sister, initially described the shooter as a white man in his 30s or 40s driving a red pickup truck, and police put out a sketch of the suspect based on that description. With little to go on besides this description, efforts to make sense of Jazmine’s death turned to one possible explanation: that the shooting was racially motivated.

Local community activists in Houston pointed to similarities between Barnes’s shooting and an August 2017 shooting that occurred in the same area. In that incident, a black man and an older woman were shot by a suspect described as a white man driving a silver or white truck. The shooter was never found, and the case remains unsolved.

Activist Deric Muhammad saw a possible connection between the two cases. “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block?” he told the Houston Chronicle on January 2.

“We’ve got to call it what it is. Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county,” Muhammad said. “We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Texas’s 18th Congressional District, which includes a part of Houston, also raised this concern, telling an audience gathered at a January 5 “Justice for Jazmine” rally, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.”

But as the week came to a close, a different picture of the shooting emerged. A tip sent to Shaun King, a writer and activist who offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, claimed that someone else fired at Jazmine’s family. That tip eventually led local law enforcement to Eric Black Jr., a 20-year-old black man.

Hours after the January 5 rally for Jazmine, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced that Black had been charged in the shooting. Black admitted his involvement in the shooting, saying that he was with a second man, later identified as Larry Woodruffe, a 24-year-old black man, when Woodruffe fired on the family’s car after mistaking it for a different vehicle. Both men have been charged with capital murder.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office described Barnes’s death as “likely a case of mistaken identity.” And while officers believe a white man in a red pickup truck was at the scene, they say he was most likely a bystander.

In the days since the change in the case broke, initial reporting about the story has been heavily criticized, with figures like conservative commentator and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke arguing that Jazmine’s death only attracted national attention because a white man was initially suspected in the shooting.

“I could have told you it wasn’t a white guy who did this,” Clarke tweeted Sunday. “Now that it’s BLACK ON BLACK crime let’s see if community outrage will maintain its intensity now that their [sic] is no racial component. Cultural dysfunction.”

Conservative writer Heather Mac Donald made a similar claim in a recent column, arguing that the Barnes story showed how “Fantasies about white violence against ‘black bodies’ are a distraction from what is actually happening on American streets.” That Barnes’s death was connected to racism and that speculation of a possible hate crime pushed her story further into the national spotlight, the argument goes, is further proof of how racism is incorrectly attributed to too many things.

But that argument fails to grapple with the very real fear and anxiety that led so many to speculate about a racist motivation in the shooting so quickly.

African Americans and other communities of color have repeatedly expressed anxiety about what they see as an emboldening of racism in America. These concerns of being under attack have been amplified further by FBI data showing a rise in reported hate crimes and high-profile incidents like the 2015 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

This context suggests that the initial reaction to Barnes’s death cannot simply be brushed off as some sort of mass delusion about racism. Rather, it shows just how powerful concerns about racism in America have become.

Communities of color are grappling with heightened concerns about racialized violence

In recent years, a number of high-profile stories — ranging from unnecessary 911 calls on black people to police violence and the murders of people like Botham Jean and Nia Wilson — have brought renewed attention to a number of issues disproportionately affecting black communities.

This has coincided with the emboldening of white supremacist groups in recent years, a development that has been further bolstered by President Trump’s repeated fearmongering about various minority groups and his citations of white nationalist talking points in speeches and on Twitter.

All of this has produced a climate in which many people of color, and particularly black people, feel unsafe: A May 2018 poll conducted by the political organizing group BlackPAC found that black voters were grappling with high levels of anxiety, with 89 percent of those polled saying that “racism in the country has gotten worse since 2016.” An October 2017 poll conducted by NPR found that 92 percent of black respondents believed discrimination still exists in America. Looking at minority groups broadly, the FBI found that the number of hate crimes reported in 2017 was 17 percent higher than the year before.

This climate of fear undoubtedly played a role in the initial reactions to Barnes’s death, even as the hunt for the shooter and speculation about the possible motivation for the attack continued.

And Barnes’s story is not the first time these sorts of concerns have been raised as a community attempted to understand the violence happening around them.

Concerns about hate crimes and violence have been seen in other cases

Last spring, as a series of small bombs went off in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods in Austin, Texas, fears mounted that the attacks were racially motivated, with community members arguing that the bombings were reminiscent of efforts used to frighten communities of color under Jim Crow.

Police, citing a recording left behind by the suspected bomber moments before his suicide, said there was no proof that the attacks were racially motivated. Even so, the bombing rocked the city, calling attention to long-overlooked racial divides.

“The events of this month have left this city’s African-Americans and Latinos wounded in ways that few others will ever truly know,” Eric Tang, an associate professor of black studies and Asian-American studies at the University of Texas Austin, explained in a March 2018 New York Times op-ed.

Months later, similar concerns were raised in Oakland, California, after the death of Nia Wilson, a black teenager who was stabbed by a white man at a BART train station. Wilson’s death caused considerable anger and fears of hate crimes in Oakland, a city that has been radically changed by gentrification as the city’s black population continues to be pushed out due to increasing housing costs.

Nationally, Wilson’s death was raised as yet another example of the ways black women disproportionately face homicides and other forms of violence. But police later concluded that the attack was not racially motivated, saying that they did not have enough evidence to charge Wilson’s assailant with a hate crime.

In recent months, a similar effort to better understand the deaths of local activists involved in the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, has also fueled concerns about racism, with other activists and community members speculating that these deaths are somehow connected.

These concerns attracted national attention in November after Dayne Jones, the son of a Ferguson activist, was found dead in his mother’s backyard. Jones’s mother, Melissa McKinnies, argued that her son was “lynched” in a story that quickly went viral. Police said they did not have evidence of foul play and have focused on investigating the incident as a case of suicide.

These are just some examples of the ways that recent national stories have come to symbolize a broader fear and anxiety in black communities. And while these stories were eventually ruled to not be rooted in racism, they are still about race, with each story raising fear in black communities, often calling attention to local histories of injustice that collide with present-day anxieties about racial tensions.

NPR’s Gene Demby recently explained how Texas’s history adds important context to initial reactions to Barnes’s death in Houston, pointing to the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man lynched by white supremacists, in a neighboring county. Demby noted that this history, coupled with more recent stories of violence like the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the 2016 car attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, likely compounded fears of her death being racially motivated.

“The suspicions that this was a racially motivated attack, even though they were wrong, are based in this very real trendline around interracial violence,” he added.

Barnes’s family says that no matter what happened, Jazmine’s death deserved national attention

In recent days, those mourning Barnes said that their concerns were never about the race of the gunman but rather the tragedy of a young life being cut short.

Barnes’s family “didn’t want a white person to be prosecuted — they wanted the right person to be prosecuted,” Lee Merritt, a civil rights lawyer assisting Barnes’s family, told the New York Times.

“This New Year’s tragedy deserved the mass attention that it got, and it shouldn’t only be weaponized for political purposes when the suspected killer is white,” Merritt continued. “The whole movement of Black Lives Matter is about the attention and care that is given to people of color in the face of violence.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told reporters this week that while the hunt for Barnes’s shooter has come to an end, concerns about issues like racism, hate crimes, and gun violence raised in the past week still matter. “We know that there’s an important discussion that does need to take place about race, about the real fear and concern that hate crimes are on an uptick across the country,” Gonzalez said.

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