Two weeks ago, a white high school student named Deryl Dedmon pled guilty to the murder of James Anderson, a black man. Dedmon dodged the death penalty by admitting that the crime was racially motivated. In so doing, he became Mississippi’s first hate criminal.
Two accomplices, John Aaron Rice and Dylan Butler, also admitted their involvement in the racially-motivated murder.
Newsweeks Tony Dokoupil traveled to Mississippi to find out what Deryl Dedmon, the young man behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee, meant when he admitted to being “young and dumb, ignorant and full of hatred.”
“What I discovered,” Dokoupil reports, “was deeper, scarier, and more complex than a single country boy gone bad or even simple, pre-civil-rights-era racism.”
Dedmon’s friends don’t see him as a racist and don’t think the murder should be classified as a hate crime. Even more disturbing, from the writer’s perspective, many of their black friends seemed to agree.
The kids in Dedmon’s social circle don’t think they’re racist at all. Sure, many use the N word, sometimes even in anger. But they say they don’t mean it in a racist way, any more than the town’s monument to the Confederate dead is meant as a call to arms. “It’s heritage, not hate,” says Trevor, echoing a common defense of Southern pride. The trips to west Jackson, he and others believe, were driven by social status—reveling in the lawlessness of poor neighborhoods—not skin color.
The article published in Newsweek and on the web in The DailyBeast, represents the most in-depth analysis of this tortured tale to appear thus far. It will come as no surprise that the murder of James Anderson was the culmination of a long series of trips from predominantly white Rankin County to the poor black neighborhoods of nearby Jackson. Unlike the black friends the white defendants knew from school, the denizens of West Jackson were regarded by Dedmon and his friends as the semi-human citizens of a Third World country. It was okay to threaten, attack, beat and eventually kill people in poor black neighborhoods because, well, they’re niggers.
But our black friends back in Rankin County, well, they’re okay.
In the version told by Dedmon’s social circle, racial hatred did not bring them to Jackson so much as boredom and drunken teenage aggression, mingled with a kind of moral outrage at the shabbiness of life in the Metro Inn area. Yes, the people there are almost all black, and the white teens call them “niggers.” But that has more to do with their status than their skin; the undignified don’t deserve dignity, they say. “White, black, red, or yellow,” says the Bunyanesque friend from the car wash, who did not go to Jackson that night, “what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity. I don’t like stupid people.”
If you hate black people because of their color, you’re racist; if you hate poor, inebriated black people because you have contempt for their lifestyle, that’s just being a decent American.
This is what happens when centuries of slavery and Jim Crow oppression empty into half a century of silence. Until the early 1970s, the official position in the state of Mississippi was pure, unfiltered white supremacy. By the late 70s the subject of race was off the table. You could spout the old line behind closed doors, but in the public arena the past wasn’t mentioned. Until recently, Mississippi school children weren’t even taught that there was a civil rights movement.
Confused white males like Deryl Dedmon were left to figure things out for themselves. Dedmon’s behavior was unusual, to be sure, but the sentiments voiced by his friends, black and white, are standard issue.
That’s why I call my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas. So long as the defendants in the Texas Panhandle town I called home for nine years were sufficiently “trashy”, constitutional protections and the canons of common sense didn’t apply. The war on drugs is rooted in the same principle.
Tony Dokoupil’s five-page article can be found here. Highly recommended.