The Conversation: Shootings expose fiction of a colorblind society

Given the gunshot wounds to his head and arm, the fact that Ralph Yarl was able to celebrate his 17th birthday on May 7 is a modern-day miracle.

On April 13, Yarl went to pick up his twin younger brothers from a play date in the Northland section of Kansas City, Kansas. But instead of going to NE 115 Terrace, Yarl mistakenly ended up a block away at NE 115 Street Place, where he rang the doorbell.

Within a few seconds of seeing Yarl at his door, homeowner Andrew Lester, an 84-year-old white man, fired his .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver twice, striking Yarl in the forehead and arm.

There was no hesitation, no conversation. Yarl remembers Lester saying these five words before firing away: “Don’t ever come here again.”

Eventually, Lester was charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, both felonies. He was released after posting $200,000 bail. On the assault charge alone, he faces a penalty of up to life in prison.

Local prosecutors have said there was “a racial component” to the shooting. But no hate crime charges have been filed against Lester.

Weeks later, on June 3, another incident involving neighbors occurred in Ocala, Florida. This one ended in the death of 35-year-old Black woman A.J. Owens.

In that case, Susan Lorincz, 58, a white woman, has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and manslaughter with a firearm, after Owens was greeted with gunshots after ringing the doorbell.

Owens reportedly went over to discuss the woman’s previous attacks on her children. Both Lester and Lorincz claimed the appearance of unarmed visitors left them fearing for their lives.

In my book, “Bodies out of Place: Theorizing Anti-Blackness in U.S. Society,” I describe how racist attitudes persist.

One way this happens is through fixed social ideas about where Blacks belong, when, with whom and in what position. Any Black person outside of what someone else determines is his or her socially designated physical or social location is presumed to be out of place.

In my book, I argue that the repercussions for being deemed “out of place” range from what some might call benign amusement to death. But make no mistake; harm results in either case.

The shootings of Yarl and Owens are important to our national conversation about race and sense of place.

It hints at a reality that is both unpleasant and often ignored: Most Black people in American society are forced to navigate increasingly segregated spaces.

I argue that as Black people travel to, through and in spaces, the presumption of criminality shrouds their bodies. It follows them to work, school and play.

To survive, Black people operate with a knowledge of beauty and precarity. For Black women, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls this consciousness an awareness of our status as “the outsider within.”

Lester said he feared for his life. He was only protecting himself when he fired on Yarl.

Through his attorney, he indicated he took the slightly built 16-year-old for a burglar. But would-be burglars don’t ring doorbells, so it’s fair to question the basis for his fear.

By all accounts, Yarl was a gifted young man before the shooting. Meara Mitchell, a teacher of his for several years, described him as a “stellar human being” with a “quiet fortitude.”

Yarl still has dreams of continued academic achievement, despite experiencing frequent headaches and other residual effects as a result of the gunshot wound.

During an interview on “Good Morning America,” he told host Robin Roberts: “I’m just going to keep doing all the stuff that makes me happy. And just living my life the best I can, and not let this bother me.”

It boggles the imagination that the shooting would not bother Yarl. What is clear is that he is resolved — at least publicly — to not let it steal his joy.

As Elaine Nichols wrote for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Black Joy is and has been an essential act of survival and development.” And as is often the case, the ability to feel great joy is only possible for those who have also known great pain.

In its guidebook Race and Racism in the United States, the American Sociological Association describes how racism operates on the structural and individual level.

There are often expectations about who belongs in certain spaces. As the work of sociologist Nirmal Puwar demonstrates, physical spaces are gendered, raced and classed.

In Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, Puwar aptly describes the way women and ethnic minorities are perceived as “space invaders” in comparison to white men who are perceived to belong.

Some have called Yarl’s shooting the “wrong door” case, but in my view, that trivializes what happened. As Yarl’s aunt, Faith Spoonmore, explained, he was “shot in the neighborhood where he lived.”

Kansas City resident Michele L. Watley called her city a place where “this veil of nicety and smiles … overlays microaggressions and all kinds of crazy stuff.”

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes that colorblindness has been “the dominant racial ideology of the post-Civil Rights era.” That ideology maintains that race no longer matters for people’s life chances.

But as Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cogently wrote in her dissent in the Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, “Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” Just ask the families of AJ Owens and Ralph Yarl.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.



I suppose there is no value in you digging a little deeper on this story. Anytime any innocent person, regardless of the color of their skin, dies or is killed is a tragedy. Has anyone bothered to find out why the elderly man felt the need to go to such great lengths to protect himself or his home? This was a tragic mistake, with a huge consequence. It deserves full reporting and not fodder for crying discrimination.