Ground Rules

“Stand your ground” laws give white citizens the kind of impunity that’s usually reserved for police.

Footage of McGlocktin's shooting, as aired on CBS This Morning.
Screengrab from CBS

Last Thursday, 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton, who is black, was killed outside a convenience store in Clearwater, Florida. Surveillance video shows McGlockton, his girlfriend Britany Jacobs, and their three children pulling into a handicapped parking space in front of the store. While McGlockton was in the store with his 5-year-old son, a man later identified as 47-year-old Michael Drejka, who is white, went up to the car to argue with Jacobs. Seeing the scene, McGlockton walked over and shoved Drejka to the ground. Drejka pulled out a gun, and as McGlockton backed away, Drejka fired. McGlockton staggered back into the store, where he collapsed. He died at the hospital.

This wasn’t the first time Drejka confronted someone over the parking space. “He basically threatened to shoot me that day, too,” said one regular customer to the store, who had a similar experience with the shooter. Police declined to arrest Drejka—who said he feared for his life—and on Monday, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said it would not press charges, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

“He had to shoot to defend himself,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “And those are the facts and that’s the law.” He continued: “Markeis wouldn’t be dead if Markeis didn’t slam this guy to the ground. … So Markeis has got skin in this game, too.”

This is the world of “stand your ground,” where people can use deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if they fear “imminent death or great bodily harm.” While it’s impossible to say if race shaped this particular incident, it has undeniably shaped how the system responds. “Stand your ground” not only redistributes police power to ordinary citizens, it takes the usual impunity granted to police—who can essentially kill black people without consequence—and extends it to white citizens, and few others.

Florida passed the nation’s first “stand your ground” law in 2005. The logic is straightforward; the law treats your position at any point as your “castle,” and as with your actual home, you have no duty to retreat from that position. Since then, similar measures have passed in 21 other states, giving residents the right to use deadly force in almost any self-defense situation.

Florida’s law came to national prominence in 2012, after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman wasn’t initially charged, prompting questions of racial bias—Martin was black, Zimmerman is Hispanic—and was later acquitted by a Florida jury.* Those were unresolved, but later analysis of outcomes in “stand your ground” states uncovered significant evidence that white and black citizens are treated differently under the law. A 2013 study by the Urban Institute found “substantial racial disparities in the outcomes of cross-race homicides.” Homicides with a white perpetrator and black victim were 10 times more likely to be ruled justified than the reverse. Further examination affirmed the finding: in “stand your ground” states, whites who kill blacks were 354 percent more likely to be found justified versus whites who kill other whites.

A 2015 study of “stand your ground” cases in Florida found similar results. After examining 204 incidents where the law was citied—and controlling for multiple variables, including “whether the defendant could have retreated from the situation, whether the defendant pursued the victim, if the victim was unarmed, and who was the initiator of the confrontation”—researchers found that the “race of the victim” was a strong “predictor in the conviction of a suspect” and that “a suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, compared to when the victim is not white.” This, they note, is “similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement when the victim is nonwhite.”

The most recent study of “stand your ground,” published in 2017, confirms the view that the laws are racially biased. After reviewing 237 cases in Florida from 2005 to 2013, researchers found that the odds of conviction for a black defendant against a white victim were nearly 100 percent, with little margin of error, versus 90 percent with a modest margin of error for white defendants and white victims. The gender bias was even more pronounced, with low conviction rates for men in domestic violence cases. An infamous case was the prosecution of Marissa Alexander, a 29-year-old black woman who, facing deadly assault from her estranged husband, fired a warning shot to defend herself. She was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Callie Adams, another black mother, shot and killed her husband while defending herself from assault. She was charged with second-degree murder.

We know the outcomes of “stand your ground” laws, but we can’t know the motives of the police and prosecutors in question. This might be racial prejudice, or it might be something we can’t see or measure. But we do know something about the logic of the “carceral state,” the term historians and social scientists use for the formal institutions of the criminal justice system—the courts, the prisons, and the police precincts; the judges, wardens, and beat officers; the web of people, places, policies, and procedures that govern citizens’ relationship to the law.

Embedded in these institutions are racist stigmas and ideas that reflect the origins of American criminal justice in the legacy of slavery, its relationship to efforts to preserve racial hierarchy, and its reliance on flawed but popular notions of black pathology and black criminality. “The United States did not face a crime problem that was racialized; it faced a race problem that was criminalized,” observes historian Naomi Murakawa in her study of federal crime politics in the 20th century. And despite the massive size of the American penal system, notes legal scholar Michelle Alexander, “the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race.”

In the American racial imagination, “black” is a property of crime, and crime is a property of blackness. We see this in social science, and we see it in public discourse, where euphemism (“urban” and “Chicago”) hardly obscures the intended message. What this means for policy is that any expansion of the carceral state—or any application of the logic of state punishment—falls hardest on black Americans, regardless of actual rates of offense. Putting police officers in schools means black children in handcuffs, stop-and-frisk policies mean black neighborhoods under virtual occupation, and criminal punishments for drug use means black addicts in prison.

Here’s where “stand your ground” comes in. Legally an expansion of the “castle doctrine,” it can be understood as an extension of police prerogative—the right to use deadly force against any perceived threat. These laws deputize ordinary citizens as agents of state violence, and as with all such violence, the distribution is racial.

Those ordinary citizens could be anyone. Proponents of “stand your ground” laws don’t make racial or gender distinctions about beneficiaries. But disparities in how those laws are applied reveal embedded ideas and racist assumptions around who has a “castle,” who can claim the right of violence to defend it, and who can expect impunity. For most of American history, the idealized citizen was a white man, secure in his person and property, prepared to defend both from intruders and interlopers.

North and South, white men were called to demonstrate their commitment to this ideal, serving in militias and slave patrols. During Reconstruction, white men in the South reaffirmed their manhood through acts of violence against newly free black Americans, and later, would do so with rituals of communal violence, ostensibly in defense of white womanhood. Our pop culture, of course, is littered with examples of idealized white manhood: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood built careers as self-sufficient white men prepared to bring gun violence to bear on threats to the order of things, from Native Americans in John Ford’s Stagecoach to criminals and liberal decadence in Dirty Harry.

On the other side was hostility to black gun ownership, informed by ideas around citizenship, manhood, and who rightfully holds the prerogatives of both. Post–Civil War “Black Codes,” for example, restricted freed people’s ability to own and carry weapons. Indeed, the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, a legal gun owner killed after announcing his handgun to a police officer, illustrates the continuing ambivalence around black gun ownership. Despite widespread outrage, the National Rifle Association was silent on this infringement of gun rights. For black Americans themselves, gun ownership was one way to assert full citizenship—it’s one reason “By Any Means Necessary” remains a popular and powerful image of self-assertion, and why one of the most iconic figures of black cinema is a gun-toting, hypermasculine black man.

“Stand your ground” taps into this history, as well as a conservative discourse around crime, safety, and gun rights that took root toward the end of the 20th century. In her study of American traditions of self-defense, historian Caroline Light notes how print advertisements for the NRA “highlighted dangerous streets and armed criminals breaking into middle-class households at night.” Even in the face of decreasing crime rates, she notes, “the NRA portrayed the law-abiding, white citizen at risk for violent crime, and armed self-defense as an urgent need.”

There is no evidence or indication that Michael Drejka killed Markeis McGlockton because he was black. Based on what we know, this was a case of aggression and escalation, made tragic by the presence of a gun. But we cannot understand the incident—why it matters, why it resonates, why it’s brought protest and outrage to yet another Florida town—without an understanding of the forces at work. Each action in this tragedy—McGlockton’s shove, Drejka’s shot, and the sheriff’s excusal—embodies a different but connected history of race, violence, and manhood. We see how our nation’s embrace of lethal self-defense has “always been selective and partial, upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.”

Contrarians may deny the weight of history and legacy, but it’s here whether we acknowledge it or not, bringing its burden to bear on the world we inhabit and the lives we live now.

Correction, July 25, 2018: This article originally misstated that George Zimmerman was not charged. He wasn’t initially charged and was later acquitted.