Dwayne Nash ’99 was once part of the legal institution he now seeks to reform.
The morning was like any other. It was late February, and Dwayne Nash ’99 woke in a brownstone on Manhattan Avenue, in New York City’s Precinct 28, where Malcolm X once demanded custody of a black man the police beat nearly to death. That was before the riots, before crack hit hard and the War on Drugs took the dealers and doers to prison, and Harlem became a nice, historical neighborhood with tree-lined streets and rents so high that Nash, a former criminal prosecutor, could hardly afford his own apartment. This morning, like every morning, Nash lay in bed and scrolled through headlines on his iPhone. One caught his eye—a neighborhood watchman had shot and killed an unarmed black kid in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin had looked “suspicious,” the watchman, George Zimmerman, said. Martin was on his way home with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles when Zimmerman called the police. By the time an officer arrived, the young man was dead.
Nash had known his share of murders, but this one particularly rattled him. Zimmerman had claimed he acted in self-defense, and the police let him go. “You have one person standing there with a gun, the other person dead. You have to give the body the benefit of the doubt,” said Nash. Why didn’t they? “I don’t think the police were incompetent. I think they saw no value in Trayvon, in investigating any further. His blackness made his body less important.”
Two weeks later, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education met Nash in a coffee shop in Harlem. Nash, 35, is at first glance modish and circumspect; the reporter took note of his “Burberry tie” and “wing-tipped shoes.” She wanted to know what he thought of the incident. Nash, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University’s black-studies program, was researching the history of stop-and-frisk, a police tactic popularized in the 1990s by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. His research is part of a growing body of work that equates the criminalization of today’s minorities with the laws that once denied African Americans their basic rights. One-third of all black men in the United States are under the watch of the criminal justice system—in prison, on probation, on parole—the majority charged with drug possession and other nonviolent offenses. Statistically, a white person is more likely to use drugs than an African American. Scholars have known for a long time that the numbers don’t add up and trace the disparity to the 1980s and the War on Drugs, when police raided dense, urban neighborhoods. But Nash’s work traces the problem even further back, to the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act passed and white Americans grasped at a new kind of racial control.
Nash chose his words carefully to the Chronicle reporter, at once gentle and emphatic: “Whether we are stopped, searched, arrested, or shot, it’s all the same. We’re being read as a threat, criminal, or suspicious at the very least. Instead of Trayvon Martin, it could have been me that was killed. I pray that a gun barrel is not pointed to my face for making an innocent gesture or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time because of my skin color. There was no right place for Trayvon. He was walking home in the rain, doing nothing wrong, and he was read as suspicious.”
This past October, when I met Nash in Chicago, I asked him to reflect again on the incident. George Zimmerman, the watchman who shot Martin, had since been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Nash was dissatisfied. “There is a long history of viewing the black body with criminal suspicion,” he said. “That memory has been transmitted across generations and time—and across institutions, as well.” In this case, said Nash, the real problem was not Zimmerman, nor even the cops, but Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which gives the benefit of the doubt to anyone who claims they shot another in self-defense. “If you believe that Zimmerman was just one bad apple, just ‘that racist,’ then you miss the point,” he said. “Zimmerman knew that he could draw from the law to protect himself. He knew he had greater rights than Trayvon. He did something wrong, but the legal institution made that possible.”