Stay away from Dearborn Heights.
Those were five unsettling words I remember as a teenager growing up in Detroit during the mid-1960’s. I was warned to steer clear of Dearborn Heights, an affluent, predominantly white Michigan suburb that had a region-wide reputation for not welcoming black folks to the neighborhood.
There were all kinds of rumors back then: White supremacists lived in Dearborn; black teenagers could get attacked while biking through the well-manicured neighborhoods; black men could get beat up just for glancing at a white girl; and white boys would yell the N-word at black pedestrians in the area.
But like most of my friends, I never ventured into Dearborn Heights, or nearby Dearborn, because I was black.
And it wasn’t just because of perception.
”City police cars bore the slogan ‘Keep Dearborn Clean,’ which was a catch phrase meaning ‘Keep Dearborn White,”’ David Good, a 54-year-old lifelong resident of Dearborn, told The New York Times in 1997.
As a teenager, I always heard that a black person could easily get shot just for passing through the Dearborn Heights city limits.
And that’s exactly what happened to 19-year-old Renisha McBride, an unarmed black woman from Detroit who was shot and killed while seeking help in Dearborn Heights after a car accident on Nov. 2.
“This was a young black woman in a neighborhood that is predominantly white,” LaToya Henry of the Detroit branch of the N.A.A.C.P. told The New York Times.
McBride’s family said they believe McBride was walking door-to-door looking for help after her car stalled and her cellphone died. They believe she was shot while walking from the suspect’s porch — and that she was racially profiled.
According to the U.S. Census, Dearborn Heights, a southwestern suburb of Detroit, is 86 percent white, and Dearborn, a neighboring city, is 89 percent white.
“You see a young black lady on your porch and you shoot?” Bernita Spinks, McBride’s maternal aunt, told The Detroit News. “He killed my niece and he needs to pay for it. He needs to be in jail.”
“He shot her in the head … for what? For knocking on his door,” Spinks said. “If he felt scared or threatened, he should have called 911.”
Police haven’t released the homeowner’s name and we don’t know his race or ethnic background. We only know that he’s 54 years old and lives alone.
I do, however, know this: Black folks in Detroit say residents of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights have never wanted to live side-by-side with African Americans and McBride, regardless of who pulled the trigger, should not have been shot and killed simply because she was hoping a compassionate citizen would come to her aid.
It’s no secret that many residents of Dearborn Heights and Dearborn are jumpy because they live close to Detroit, which is 82 percent black, and fear that Detroit’s high crime is spreading to the suburbs.
Meanwhile, McBride’s family is understandably angry because the man who shot McBride has not been arrested. A jury would have to determine whether McBride’s killing was justifiable, but there cannot be a trial without a defendant.
Cheryl Carpenter, the homeowner’s attorney, told The Huffington Post that her client was warranted in shooting McBride because he feared for his life – and stood his ground.
“On that night he was woken up. … Everything was dark in the house, and he was awoken by sounds of a person or persons trying to get into his home,” Carpenter said.
The McBride case comes after similar protests this summer when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted after fatally shooting a Trayvon Martin, 17, during a fight in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman maintained he feared for his life and shot Martin in self-defense.
“There has been discussion about the impact of Michigan’s controversial stand your ground laws and whether they contributed to this [McBride] incident,” U.S. Rep John Conyers of Michigan said in a statement. “I have long opposed laws of this nature.” Michigan law allows individuals to use deadly force to prevent imminent harm or death.
It’s been 45 years since I was warned to stay away from Dearborn Heights because I am black and, sadly, the call for caution is still relevant today.