So when will there be justice for Levar Jones?
The question is occasioned by a reader’s recent request for an update on an incident I wrote about in 2014. Jones, an unarmed African-American man, was shot by South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert during a routine traffic stop in Columbia.
Jones did nothing to merit this. You know that if you’ve seen the dashcam video. It shows Groubert, who is white, pulling up as Jones is exiting his car at a gas station. Groubert asks for his license. Jones reaches into his open vehicle to retrieve it. Groubert, in a panic, yells for him to get out of the car. Jones is complying when Groubert opens fire. “Get on the ground!” he yells, as Jones, hands raised, stumbles and falls.
“What did I do, sir?” he asks. “Why did you shoot me?”
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Groubert pleaded guilty to a charge of “assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature” in March of 2016. So when I checked for an update, I fully expected to find that he is now serving time.
Instead, I found he hasn’t even been sentenced yet. Again: It has been 14 months since he admitted his guilt, and though he is in jail, Groubert has yet to be sentenced.
There is much to unpack here, beginning with that anguished question: “Why did you shoot me?” Groubert probably wonders the same thing, but from where I sit, it’s no mystery.
I expect many white readers, heavily invested in the fiction of their post-racial innocence, to reject this by reflex, but the fact is, white people often prejudge black ones on sight as dangerous or scary. They perceive black boys as bigger and older than they are, and black men as larger and more threatening.
Don’t take my word for it. Take social science’s. These things have been quantified in studies, including one recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Statistics released in 2014 by the Department of Education found that even in preschool, African-American children are significantly more likely to be suspended than white ones. We’re talking toddlers.
Understand the mindset that finds even little brown babies scary, and you understand Groubert’s sudden panic. He did not, I believe, act from conscious malice. No, he acted as this country wired him to.
Not that he shouldn’t be held accountable for it. No, accountability is key. Without it, credibility is impossible. Which explains the state of things between black people and the justice system.
Some white people pretend not to get this. Attempting to deflect cries of “Black lives matter!” they point to the gun carnage in urban Chicago or Miami and opine that black people should instead be protesting so-called “black on black” crime.
But when a black criminal shoots someone, he will, if caught, be held to answer for it. When a cop shoots an unarmed black person, he probably won’t. Prosecutors decline to prosecute, grand juries decline to indict, juries decline to convict. Now an officer has pleaded guilty, and yet a judge declines to judge.
Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation for that, though it’s hard to think of one, and the judge, who is black, had not returned my call by deadline time. Absent the explanation, one is inclined to consider this simply superfluous proof of systemic bias, a “justice” system that can never seem to find the gumption to punish its own when they mistreat people of color.
We are left to wonder when — if — we will see justice. But can you imagine if the black motorist had shot the white cop?
You wouldn’t even have to ask.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald.