While Trayvon Martin’s murder was viewed through the lens of race, the murder of McBride is seen more through the eyes of gender—the killing of a black woman. And in our patriarchal and sexist society where women still rank lower than men in most instances, black women rank at the very bottom.
The undisputed facts of her case are even more disturbing that those involving the murder of Trayvon Martin. She was shot to death while seeking help from Theodore Wafer, her accused murderer, who was locked inside his house. Yet the media and public appear indifferent to her case. Some argue on social media that we are becoming numb due to the number of murder cases of young black life from Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Hadiya Pendleton, Jordan Davis and now Renisha McBride. There is another reason and that one is rooted in gender and how black women are treated in the media. Black women are mostly marginalized in the media and seen in limited roles.
In the media, black women are not seen like Renisha McBride as helpless seeking help in the middle of the night from strangers. Black women are not helpless in the media. They are “the help”. Black women are perceived in the media as strong, both mentally and physically. They are often viewed as angry as “the angry black woman” syndrome. There is no place in the media for a black woman to be vulnerable, scared, crying and appearing in desperate need of help.
Historically from past portrayals of the strong black woman from Mammy played by Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, Sofia in the Color Purple played by Oprah Winfrey to Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as the maid in The Help, black women are seen as strong and not in need of help. In her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry describes the other stereotype of the angry black woman characteristics as “shrill, loud, argumentative, irrationally angry, and verbally abusive.” And unconsciously these are the images rooted in a white juror’s minds.
And the defense is now feeding into the stereotypes of black women when it asserts that Wafer thought there were multiple people knocking at his door because the pounding was so loud. And a black woman who is strong can pound loud enough to sound like several people, if you buy the media’s perception of black women.
The defense has also said it intends to prove that McBride was no angel—as she was 3 times over the legal level for alcohol. This again raises another stereotype of black women. Renisha McBride was nineteen years old. And the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) said in January, 2014 that underage drinking is a major public health issue in the U. S. Unfortunately, in this regard, McBride was typical for her age group.
Prior to the start of the trial, Wafer’s defense attorney said she wanted to show that McBride could have been “up to no good.” It’s hard to see how someone who was intoxicated, injured and scared was probably up to no good. Nonetheless, the defense’s strategy is to dehumanize Renisha McBride. So far, the judge has denied their requests to submit her Facebook page with her title of “young and thugging” and other social media photos.
To overcome the double bias of race and gender in the case, the prosecution must show the human side of Renisha McBride. Failing to show the human side of Trayvon Martin was fatal to the prosecution in the Zimmerman trial. The defense intends to portray Wafer as a scared, middle age white man, alone and afraid of his home being burglarized on November 2. The Wafer defense should not define the defendant without the prosecution also portraying the victim, Renisha McBride. She was a scared, injured, disoriented teenager. She was neither black or white that night. She was typical for her age. She was a woman and she was human. McBride is not sitting in the court room able to testify like Wafer. And so the prosecution must bring her to life. They must show she was human. And she deserved to be treated like a human the night she was killed and in the court room now.
Debbie Hines is a practicing trial attorney and former prosecutor who has tried homicides, burglaries, narcotics and sex offense crimes. She founded LegalSpeaks blog in 2009 which focuses on gender and race issues in the law. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.