Let us give Sean Groubert every benefit of the doubt.
Let us assume he is a good person. Let us assume he is kind to children, well-liked by neighbors. And by all means, let’s assume he has a black friend. For good measure, let’s assume he has two.
Now, with those assumptions in force, let’s ponder why Groubert, a white South Carolina state trooper, shot an unarmed black man last month at a gas station in Columbia. The incident has received less notice than did the shooting of Michael Brown, probably because the victim, 35-year-old Levar Jones, survived. But it deserves attention because it promises to enlighten us in ways the Brown killing did not.
Groubert, who has been fired and charged with assault and battery, tells his side of the story in audio obtained by MSNBC. He explains how he stopped Jones for a seat belt violation, how Jones “jumped out” of his car and “stared at me.” Groubert says that “as I approached him, he jumped headfirst into his car” and that is when he ordered Jones out and “he jumped out of the car. I saw something black in his hands. I ran to the other side of the car, yelling at him, and he kept coming towards me. Apparently it was his wallet.”
But that is not what happened. Groubert’s story is contradicted by an unimpeachable witness – his own dash cam video. You can see it online for yourself. Groubert pulls up as Jones is exiting his vehicle. The officer asks to see Jones’ license. Jones reaches into the car to get it. The officer, voice rising in panic, orders Jones out of the vehicle. Jones is complying with this when Groubert opens fire. He’s still shooting as Jones falls out of frame, hands raised.
“Why did you shoot me?” Jones asks.
Now Jones, shot in the hip, is walking with a cane, Groubert is facing 20 years, and that question hangs like smoke. So let us accord him the benefit of the doubt because in situations like this, people always want to make it a question of character. And the shooter’s friends always feel obliged to defend him with the same tired words: “He is not a racist.”
He probably isn’t, at least not in the way they understand the term.
But what he is, is a citizen of a country where the fear of black men is downright viral. That doesn’t mean he burns crosses on the weekend. It means he’s watched television, seen a movie, used a computer, read a newspaper or magazine. It means he is alive and aware in a nation where one is taught from birth that thug equals black, suspect equals black, danger equals black.
Thus has it been since the days of chains, since the days of lynch law, since the days newspapers routinely ran headlines like “Helpless Co-Ed Ravished by Black Brute.” It is the water we drink and the air we breathe, a perception out of all proportion to any objective reality, yet it infiltrates the collective subconscious to such an unholy degree that even black men fear black men.
The Groubert video offers an unusually stark image of that fear in action. Viewing it, it seems clear the trooper is not reacting to anything Jones does. In a very real sense, he doesn’t even see him. No, he is reacting to a primal fear of what Jones is, to outsize expectations of what Jones might do, to terrors buried so deep in his breast, he probably doesn’t even know they’re there.
You almost feel sorry for Groubert, his life in ruins for a crime he probably can’t even explain to himself. But let us also spare some empathy for Jones, for Trayvon Martin, for Oscar Grant, for Amadou Diallo, for all the other African-American men who have died because of – or who struggle to live through – this nation’s unreasoning fear of them and their sons.
Consider that video and answer honestly: Just who should be frightened of whom?
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.