What A Case Of Mistaken Identity Tells Us About Race In America

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Jazmine Barnes, a seven-year-old black girl, was buried this week in Harris County, Texas. She was shot and killed while sitting in the car with her mother and siblings on the morning of December 30.

Initial reports stated that the shooter was a white man. Those reports led to a national outcry that this was a racially-motivated attack. Activists and politicians demanded that the shooting be investigated as a hate crime. But in the days since the shooting, deputies in Harris County have charged two black men in relation to the shooting.

Gene Demby spoke to David Greene of Morning Edition about what this incident reveals about the current landscape of race and violence in the United States.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

David Greene: Could you walk us through the timeline of events in this story?

Gene Demby: Jazmine Barnes was in a car with her mother and three sisters on Dec. 30 near a Walmart when shots rang out. Her mother was shot in the arm but survived. But Jazmine, who was seven, was shot in the head and died at the scene. The other girls in the car during the shooting said the gunshots came from as a red pickup truck driven by a white male. And the New York Times reports that there was another still unsolved shooting in 2017 in the same area that witnesses say was committed by a white man in a Ford pickup.

So that, in combination with a police sketch of the suspect, created a real fear that this was a racially-motivated attack.

But we now know that the suspected shooter was black.

Right. This week, the police have charged two suspects, Larry Woodruffe, the alleged shooter, and Eric Black Jr., the alleged driver. The police say they think the shooting was a case of mistaken identity. Eric Black and the alleged shooter, they say, were trying to retaliate against someone they had gotten into an argument with earlier, and they misidentified the car Jazmine Barnes was in.

The police said that they believe that both the white male and the red pickup the girls in the car saw were real, but probably belonged to an innocent bystander who sped away during the confusion of the shooting.

What did race have to do with this story capturing national attention?

In the days after the shooting and before the arrests, Shaun King, an activist who is very prominent on social media, offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the suspect's arrest and helped publicize the police sketch of the presumed white suspect. During that same period, Sheila Jackson Lee, a congresswoman from Houston, called Barnes' killing a hate crime.

The context here is important. Remember, it was only two decades ago that a black man named James Byrd Jr. was lynched by white supremacists about two hours away from Harris County. That killing helped fuel federal hate crime legislation. More recently, in 2015, there was the mass shooting by a white supremacist at a historic black church in South Carolina, and the fatal car attack by a white nationalist in Charlottesville in 2016. The FBI said in a report last fall that hate crimes were up 17 percent in 2017 — the third straight year that hate crimes went up. So the suspicions that this was a racially-motivated attack, even though they were wrong, are based in this very real trendline around interracial violence.

If this suspect were identified as black from the beginning, how might that have changed this story?

Crimes with both black victims and black perpetrators tend not to make national news. Just two weeks before Jazmine Barnes was shot, another 7-year-old in Harris County was seriously injured in a drive-by shooting. When these crimes do bubble up to this level, it's usually invoked to wave away concerns around structural racism or police violence — you know, concern-trolling like, "Well, what about black-on-black crime?"

There are sadly a lot of Jazmine Barneses in America, and lots of neighborhood rallies and memorials for slain little kids like her. It's telling that the relatively less common instance is one of a very few conditions in which those deaths would garner national coverage.

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