“Given the race and class dynamics of jury selection it would have been very difficult to seat a jury of working-class Black people, especially considering that Black people are systematically excluded from juries in Minnesota and nationally,” said Rose Brewer University of Minnesota professor of African and African American studies. Brewer predicted that there would be few if any working-class Blacks on the jury for the Derek Chauvin trial.
The trial of Chauvin has not officially begun, but the jury selection, along with the apparent effort by the prosecution and the defense to select a “certain kind” of Black person, has raised concerns about the fairness of the process. This, in turn, has raised concerns among many who have been polled in the Black community about whether the system can convict one of its own.
“Native-born Blacks in this country have a unique experience as a result of systemic racism oppression and police violence,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, an activist, civil and human rights attorney, and organizer of the Racial Justice Network. “Our perspectives should be valued as opposed to what we see happening in this jury selection process, in which they are discounted. Jurors who have had these experiences are probably the most qualified and in perfect position to judge this cop’s [Chauvin’s] behavior.”
The recent rejection of a potential Black juror—who will be referred to as Juror #76—has reinforced the idea that Blacks are not really wanted on juries. This potential juror told the court that he experienced racism frequently and that in his neighborhood, after a Black person was killed, Minneapolis police would drive down the street playing, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
It was this lived experience that caused him to be rejected by the defense. His rejection was not contested by the prosecution as they failed to raise a Batson challenge, which can be used by counsel to oppose one side rejecting a potential juror because of their race. However, in the case of Juror #76 according to MSR Legal Insight columnist Mary Moriarty, “His race was tied to his experience.”
“The legal fiction is that certain people cannot look at a set of facts and be fair and impartial,” said Andrew Gordon, deputy director for community legal services for the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis. “In other words, you can’t have a bias and be fair and impartial.”
“The court is not just screening for bias but for someone with a particular bias,” said Gordon, explaining why potential Black jurors with the lived experience of racism might be excluded while those with a relative or a friend in law enforcement might be viewed as acceptable.
“They couldn’t exclude juror #76 because he was Black, but could exclude him because of his experience. But how do you separate the two?” asked Gordon.
“[The trial jury is] one of the most diverse juries I have ever seen in Hennepin County,” said St. Paul criminal defense attorney A.L. Brown. “It’s a good thing—it adds credibility to whatever the outcome might be. It may not be people from the same neighborhood, but to the extent that race can be a proxy for experience it’s probably the best jury you could ask for.”
While some are applauding the process for its diversity, others have pointed out that some of the Black or mixed-race jurors do not have the same lived experiences as Blacks whose ancestors were brought from Africa and enslaved in the U.S.
Ironically the mixed-race woman in her twenties, while appearing Black outwardly, seemed to have no links to the historical African American community. Media members who were in the courtroom described her appearance as similar to Queen Latifah’s. In her voir doir (the questioning of potential jurors) she admitted she had no Black friends and said she heard about racism through the experiences of People of Color who are acquaintances.
One other juror was misidentified by the court as White but later said she was of mixed race. Two of the Black jurors are African immigrants with apparent ties to West Africa. Depending on their personal experiences, they may or may not identify with more indigenous African Americans.
Gordon, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, explained that in his experience many Black immigrants look unfavorably upon the native and historic African American community, which some refer to as “African descendants of slaves.”
It is not far-fetched, according to Gordon, for an African immigrant to say about George Floyd, “That is an African American man. I have nothing in common with him.”
“Rule compliance was a big deal for my parents,” explained Dr. Rosemary Ndubuizu, Georgetown University assistant professor of African American studies, who is second-generation Nigerian. Ndubuizu said that Africans who leave their home country fleeing from conflict are concerned about being safe. Depending on their experiences with colonialism and their new country, she said they may feel more favorable towards Whites and their new country.
“The specter of White benevolence is more likely to cause them to give the police officers the benefit of the doubt,” Ndubuizu said. “They assume that the rules are true, just.”
Rumors have persisted that Whites often prefer Black immigrants over native Blacks, especially in the workplace.
“White people may be more empathetic to immigrants because they see them as having pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. And they feel less guilty around them,” said Gordon, offering an educated guess about why the judge, prosecutor, and even Chauvin’s defense attorney may have been more comfortable seating the African immigrants.
“Police officers consider them as Black,” said Brown, referring to African immigrants and mixed-race or biracial people who are part Black. “Society does not make a lot of distinction between African, African American and biracial Blacks. If you don’t believe me, just ask Tiger Woods.”
The effect of trauma
If there are any differences among Blacks living in North America, it may be the length of time they have been exposed to the racist trauma that is an inherent part of the Black experience in the United States. Those experiences include what many refer to as micro-aggressions.
Psychologists and other experts and often talk about historic trauma when referring to the indigenous African American community. As a result of this trauma, many Blacks have a certain amount of stress built into their genetic makeup, and even a bit of PTSD as a result of the trauma of viewing Black people repeatedly victimized by racist violence.
“We ought to as a community try to create more unity rather than expose or preserve differences,” urged Brown. “Our biracial and immigrant brothers and sisters are still our brothers and sisters. We ought not work to create divisions.
“At the end of the day,” said Brown, “if you are at the pool and somebody doesn’t think you belong there, if you are sitting in a Starbucks, if you are applying for a job, if you are buying Skittles, if you pass a counterfeit twenty, if you are driving through St. Anthony Park and have the audacity to have a conceal carry permit, they look at your skin and they reach a conclusion.”
No one is sure how the diversity of the jury will affect the trial outcome, but there is agreement around the idea that diversity means including those viewed unacceptable by the criminal justice system.
“If we want the jury trial system to be legitimate in the eyes of Black community members,” wrote Moriarty, “we need reform. We should start with ensuring that Black members of our community serve on juries by recognizing that their lived experiences with racism are not a justification to excuse them.”
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.