Texas is a big place. But the area within a 50-mile radius of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, boasts a disproportionate share of the State’s population. More suggestively, in the light of recent events, the so-called Upper Gulf Coast region also contains the highest concentration of African-American citizens, nearly 18 per cent., as compared with only 11 in Central Texas or 5 in West Texas. Of all the remarkable results of the November midterms, nothing surpasses the election of 19 black women Democrats to positions in various levels of the judiciary in Harris County, where Houston is located. The elections saw the removal of many Republican incumbents, black and white. They also dented the power of white men who, although only 30% of the Texas population, until now held 58% of the State judicial posts. The Democrat women candidates called their movement “Black Girls’ Magic.”
Their recent victory adds a bittersweet layer of sorrow to the atrocious shooting of Jazmine Barnes, a 7-year-old black child, this past week. When investigators first released a sketch of a suspect, a white man with blue eyes, Jazmine’s mother and members of the community quickly responded by portraying the incident as a racially motivated “hate crime.” A New York writer-activist, Shaun King, who eventually became a critical link in the identification of the current suspects, took to Twitter to field accusations of racism against a white man who resembled the police photo, which only heightened the narrative of anonymous race-based violence. Vehement reaction from the other direction made it hard to dismiss concerns about racism in some form. When the photo of a black man now under arrest for the crime was released, one Instagram user re-posted it, with the further comment:
yea it’s about race because nobody would have even heard of Jazmine if her mom didn’t make this hate crime story up to gain media attention. if the mom said it was a gang related black on black shooting, this wouldn’t even make the newspaper.. shit like this happens every week
Now, the New York Times dryly notes, “it has turned out far differently.” According to the statement of Eric Black, the man currently under arrest as an accomplice to the shooter, the tragedy arose from a bar fight, and the girl and her family were shot as a result of “mistaken identity.” A second suspect has been identified. Both men are African-American.
Were suspicions of a hate-crime ever justified in the case of Jazmine Barnes? I for one confess that, at one moment a week ago, this notion seemed plausible. This is the same corner of Texas, after all, that witnessed the notorious case of Sandra Bland, a black Chicagoan pulled over in 2015 for failing to signal a lane change and beaten up by a white cop, and who subsequently died in jail, allegedly by suicide. The white district attorney in Waller County, next door to Houston, did not probe the county sheriff’s contradictory accounts of Bland’s mental condition and said the autopsy showed no signs of violent struggle. Subsequent reporting disclosed that the sheriff himself had been disciplined for racist comments in an earlier job, at a time when his beat in Hempstead, Texas, was 50% black. He was elected as a Republican to the Waller County position a year later. The arresting officer in the Bland case was eventually fired but not prosecuted–he offered the time-honored explanation: “I felt my safety was in jeopardy”–and the Bland family made a financial settlement without accepting that Sandy had killed herself. And who could forget about Philando Castile or Walter Scott, to instance two other victims of nervous policemen–oh, those video cameras–and finally, the “out of control” cop who manhandled black girls at a Dallas swimming pool? Or perhaps we could forget that all black lives matter.
As a number of internet comments have pointed out since the arrests, a significant risk comes with fitting any event into a preconceived, politicized story-line. Obviously, each new speculation potentially adds fuel to public polarization and hostility. Yet it’s almost too easy to warn against the danger of leaping to conclusions while overlooking the context within which such incidents are increasingly seen and experienced. The hundreds of people who turned out to protest over the weekend and to remember Jazmine at her funeral are no less moved because her killing turns out not to be a hate crime. Instead they are far more likely to think of other young people of color whom they know, children whose lives were diverted, destroyed, or ended in circumstances that are shaped by politics. The power wielded within the juvenile justice system applies not only to hardened gang members but also to children who lose their adult family for any reason. Those charged with administering the system have various motives, some of which can be rightly questioned, and control over many lives often rests in the hands of a very few. After being ousted from office, one of the defeated Republican juvenile court judges used his session the next morning to dismiss nearly all of the young defendants who appeared before him, asking only whether they planned to kill anyone. (Apparently he wanted to make a statement, although not to the media afterwards.)
What does an outsider make of all this? The first step is to acknowledge the complexity of homicide investigation and criminal prosecution. No one is obliged to identify and punish wrong-doers except the duly constituted officials; everyone else should take a step back. Who knows? The arrest of Eric Black, ironically, occurred after he was pulled over for failing to use a turn signal during a lane change. At another level, though, it may not be so clear how to distinguish what happened to Jazmine from the ordinary “gang related black on black shooting”–Eric Black is 20 years old–that has evidently become acceptable to some. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez set the right tone at his press conference about the case, mentioning not only hate crimes but also sex trafficking and gun violence generally. Often change in America’s racial conscience comes in the wake of senseless death. But let us help black girls exercise their “magic” by growing up to lead instead of becoming innocent martyrs.