Playing Ostrich on Race

Ferguson protest

Whenever an unarmed black teen gets shot by a white guy — which seems to be becoming a trend these days –you can count on two things happening. First, there is an outrage among the public. Second, there is a campaign by many in the media, and other right-wing extremists, to gloss over the incident and the public reaction. It’s really no big deal, they try to tell you. Get upset over something else instead, they say. We saw this with the killing of Trayvon Martin. And more recently, we’ve been seeing it with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Fox “News” and company have gone into hyperdrive declaring how sick and tired they are of all the media coverage of protests in Ferguson even as they offer endless coverage of Ferguson, and how the real racists are the ones who talk about racism even as they go on and on about racism.  Fox bit off more than it could chew in one priceless unscripted segment in which Steve Harrigan was, in the condescending words of a colleague,

trying to explain the reality of what is happening now — that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people are out for show.

When Harrigan patronizingly referred to the protests as “child’s play”, he was overheard by an angry participant who confronted him and schooled him in very blunt terms — asking him, among other things, “Who’s the child playing with toys? Us or them?”

Fox, of course, is not designed primarily as a news organization, but as the voice of the “conservative movement” (one of my favorite oxymorons) which likes to play ostrich with racial tensions. Republicans sometimes bill themselves as “the party of Lincoln”, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) that the party has undergone a radical makeover in more recent decades, and Abe wouldn’t recognize anything about it except the name. The GOP — and Fox — often trot out the scant handful of African-Americans in their midst and pretend that they are a much larger contingent than they really are, and that everything is just peachy keen.

But anyone who’s attended a Republican convention can vouch for the scarcity of dark faces among the delegates, though there might be plenty of them in the service staff — for whom black delegates are often mistaken.  I recall reading about one African-American attendee of a state GOP gathering in recent years who, though he was wearing a badge that clearly identified him, was asked to carry bags or call a taxi six times. But if you shine a light on this lack of ethnic diversity, then wingers, rather than trying to address it, are likely to upbraid you for “playing the race card”.

The trigger-happy cop in Ferguson didn’t even give Michael Brown a chance to carry his bags. What he did was shoot an unarmed teenager — not once, but SIX TIMES, who according to witnesses, was holding up his hands and moving away from the officer. The friend who was with Brown reports that when the cop drove up he yelled at them to “get the fuck on the sidewalk”.  One witness says that he then started driving away, but abruptly reversed his vehicle, after which the confrontation started. After Brown was gunned down, his body was allowed to lie in the street for FOUR HOURS.

Now suppose you didn’t know anything about the color of the parties involved, or you knew that everyone was the same race. Wouldn’t you find it alarming that law enforcement personnel could conduct themselves in this manner? Hell, there are lots of Libertarianoids out there who seem to be on a fulltime campaign to convince people that police in general are jack-booted Storm Trooper thugs; they scout out and publicize every little instance of alleged police misconduct they hear about, and tout it as representative of police activity in general and proof that all police forces should be totally emasculated. And yet they’ve been rather behind the curve when it comes to outrage over the death of Michael Brown. Why? (It isn’t true, as some have suggested, that Libertarians have been totally silent on the matter; but they haven’t been nearly as vocal as one might expect given their obsession with all things constabulary.)

The really extreme right-wingers, however, certainly have not ignored the incident. Instead, they’ve done their best to convince you that there’s really nothing to see here, so move on. And that includes trying to convince you that the dead kid “got everything he deserved”, in the words of pundit Pat Dollard. As phrased by an article in AlterNet (“4 worst Right-Wing Reactions to Michael Brown’s Killing and the Ferguson Protests”),

Conservative media has never met a young black man it couldn’t retroactively [i.e., posthumously] enlist into the shadowy urban gangs of its fevered imagination.

The campaign to smear Michael Brown is virtually a carbon copy of the campaign to smear Trayvon Martin. They’ve claimed he had a criminal record. Not true. They’ve claimed he had a gang affiliation. Not true. they’ve claimed he had marijuana in his system. Possibly true, but irrelevant. They’ve circulated photos of another, more menacing-looking individual, and falsely identified them as Brown. They’ve claimed that he broke the eye socket of the policeman who killed him. Not true. They’ve circulated still frames taken from a surveillance video which they claim depicts Brown robbing a convenience store earlier that day. But the video does not prove any such thing. It shows a young man fitting Brown’s description bringing merchandise to the counter, having a discussion with the clerk, then leaving — pushing the clerk, who has come out and gotten into an altercation with him. In any case, the officer who shot him did not stop him because he was suspected of robbery; his crime that cost him his life was walking in the street.

Yet pretend that all of the rumors about Brown are true. Say that he really was as monstrous as the wingers would have you believe, and then some. Even so, is it justified to shoot him six times when he’s unarmed? Would anyone ever say that a white teen, because he lived a less than exemplary life (like most teenagers) deserved to be pumped full of lead? Would people say (as some have of Brown) that slaughtering a white teen amounts to “taking out the trash”?  It wasn’t very long ago, lest we forget, that many of these people were manufacturing all the outrage they could muster because the Obama administration gunned down Osama bin Laden. So now they high-five over the same thing happening to an unarmed American kid who apparently never hurt anyone?

“Conservatives” loudly insist that race is not a factor in slayings of this type, yet they undermine their own narrative by trying to justify the perception of the victims as suspicious characters on the basis of their appearance. Fox’s Geraldo Rivera speculated that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as [the killer] was”. The rumors of Michael Brown being a gangster have been bolstered by the fact that he sometimes wore red clothing. And LiberalLogic 101, a site that purports to expose flaws in “liberal” reasoning but only exposes its own utter lack of reasoning skills (we mentioned it previously in the post on straw men), suggested that judging someone for wearing a hoodie or a red shirt is no worse than judging someone for wearing a Klan robe. Such is the “conservative” logic behind LiberalLogic 101. And if you really think like this, you have your head stuck in something worse than sand.

Incidentally, the folks at LiberalLogic 101 also recently ran a cartoon depicting President Obama saying, “My position on beheadings is that I be heading to the golf course”. Coincidentally, researches in one study found that they were able to manipulate the favorability/ unfavorability with which many participants viewed Obama by subtly altering the skin tone in his photograph.

Such individuals have a habit of treating each shooting of this sort as an isolated incident, wrenched free of social context, But as many people, including the author of the AlterNet article have pointed out, the killing of Michael Brown did not occur in a vacuum. Jon Stewart, spot on as usual, goes into a bit of detail about what a vacuum it didn’t occur in.

Forget that in Ferguson, 94 percent of the police are white, and 63 percent of the people are black. Forget that 92 percent of police searches and 86 percent of car stops are for black people.

He goes on to present an account of an incident in which 4 Ferguson police officers beat a 52-year-old man and then cited him for defiling government property by staining their uniforms with his blood. Indeed, the Ferguson P.D. has an apparent history of heavy-handed behavior. Its strained relations with residents, particularly with those of the African-American persuasion, was a time bomb waiting to detonate. And it has.

Stewart also hands Sean Hannity his testicles on a platter for the umpeenth time (not a particularly difficult feat to pull off) and punctures another popular right-wing talking point: that the attention focused on an event like Ferguson or the death of Trayvon Martin is way out of proportion to the attention given to the killings of black citizens that occur in some cities on a daily basis. In the words of one clueless Foxster:

If I were African-American, I would be outraged that more journalists aren’t covering what’s happening in Chicago, and more outraged that people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t head to those areas.

Which is an amazingly brainless comment for at least three reasons. First, as Stewart facetiously asks, “Why all the interest in holding police officers to a higher standard than gangs?” And second, it’s not an either/ or proposition; and as it turns out, those African-American leaders whom the wingers so often upbraid for not addressing gang violence have been very involved in, um, addressing gang violence. Third, there are good reasons for the discrepancy in media coverage: see Trayvon Martin and the “Double Standard “Standard, Part 1 and Part 2.

Okay, we’re being hard on right-wingers here, but there’s a simple explanation: they’ve earned it.  Yet observers on both the left and the right tend to cloud the issue by conflating racism with racial bias. Racism is blatant and deliberate, and as such is readily noted. But racial bias is more subtle and unconscious, and therefore does a lot of damage under the radar.

Racism suggests that the Ferguson cop killed Michael Brown because he was black. That’s probably not true — although it doesn’t speak well for him that the KKK and other racists are rushing to his defense. What’s much more likely, however, is that Brown’s ethnicity contributed significantly to his being a “suspicious character” in the first place. No matter how you slice it, it’s quite possible, if not probable, that if he had been white, he’d still be alive. Compare what happened to him to what happened when a white man walked down the street brandishing a gun, threatening and insulting police and daring them to shoot him. And what did the police do? They negotiated with him for 40 minutes, pleading with him to put down the gun, and all but invited him home for tea.

The killers of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have, thus far, walked free. Compare this to John McNeil, a black man who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a white man (who was not a teen) who was armed and threatening on McNeil’s own property. Once again, let me quote Jon Stewart (Don’t you get tired of having to get the facts about current events from comedians?) because he puts it so memorably:

I guarantee you that every person of color has faced an indignity — from the ridiculous to the grotesque to the sometimes fatal — at some point in their,,, I’m going to say last couple of hours. [to the Foxsters] You’re tired of hearing about it?? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is to live it.

As he mentions, this blatant racial profiling occurs even in the “liberal bastion” of New York City.  Indeed, it’s everywhere. Research indicates that people with darker complexions are more likely to be considered untrustworthy or suspicious, and are more likely to be convicted of crime when accused. This bias is often present even among African-Americans themselves. It’s not a simple problem, but it’s a very real, and sometimes deadly problem. And I don’t know what the solution is — although I suspect that an increased awareness would go a long way toward a remedy. Whatever the solution, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve playing ostrich.

Trayvon Martin; and the “Double Standard” Standard (Part 2)

My wife likes to joke that her special superpower is an extraordinary ability to state the obvious. That’s actually a very handy skill to have, since so many people have an extraordinary capacity for ignoring the obvious. This has become quite clear in the public discourse about the death of Trayvon Martin. The degree of outrage it’s provoked, and the subsequent amount of media attention, have been attributed to such things as media bias and nefarious “liberal” subversiveness. The real explanation is much  more conspicuous: the burden of history.

A Brief History Refresher, for Those Who Really Need It

There was a time when African-Americans could be shot, lynched, set on fire or beaten for any reason or no reason. This was not called hate crime. It was called wholesome entertainment.  And forget about anything resembling a fair trial if they were the victim of, or the suspect in, a crime.  All in the distant past, you say? Not nearly so distant as we’d like to believe.

Many Americans are alive today who can remember when a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till (pictured on right) was tortured and killed because he allegedly committed the grave offense of flirting with/ speaking to a white woman. (One report was that he simply whistled at her; but he frequently whistled, at no one in particular, to curb his stuttering habit.) His murderers were acquitted, then freely admitted the killing. And some can remember when African-Americans were gunned down for the crime of trying to vote, and the police would declare it to be a traffic accident. (This was before the development of more sophisticated means of eliminating the “wrong” voters.)

More recently (1964), five civil rights workers (three black, two white) were brutally murdered in two incidents in Mississippi –with the assistance of local law enforcement personnel! The two whites who had the audacity to support racial equality were just lynched; the blacks were savagely beaten before being dispatched. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Is it really so surprising that the police pummeling of Rodney King or the shooting of Trayvon Martin should spark such an uproar?

The other side of the coin is that blacks are far more likely than whites to be accused of, convicted of, and even executed for crimes than whites – particularly when their alleged victims are white. Furthermore, there is a much greater tendency to extrapolate generalities from an incident involving an ethnic minority. When a Caucasian goes on a shooting spree and kills a dozen people, you never hear anyone say, “Well, that’s just like a whitey”. But if a black person commits an assault of just one person, you’re likely to hear a number of people say, “that’s just like a (fill in epithet of your choice)”.

So given all of this, would it really be surprising if indeed some journalists were reluctant to play up offenses or alleged offenses committed by blacks against whites? If there really is a discrepancy in how those offenses are reported versus how extensively offenses are reported by whites against blacks (and I don’t know that there is), it could well be inadvertent, and if anything is surely a correction of an anti-black bias rather than an indication of “anti-white” bias.

We have to wonder what would have happened had the shooter been black instead of white. Well, maybe we don’t have to wonder; we already have the example of John McNeil. He fatally shot a man in Georgia, which has a “Stand Your Ground Law” similar to Florida’s. But McNeil is currently serving a life sentence. Did we mention that he’s black? Double standards, anyone?

Okay, okay. We’ve already made the observation that apparent instances of double standards usually entail some striking differences. So let’s look at the differences here. McNeil did not shoot the man on the streets. It happened on McNeil’s own property. He didn’t start the altercation the way Trayvon Martin’s killer did,  and he wasn’t following the man; the man was aggressively pursuing him – and indeed had been prone to threatening behavior toward other people, even to the point of stalking.  He was not unarmed like Trayvon Martin, but was carrying a knife. And unlike Martin, there’s no doubt that he was posing a threat – he even pointed a knife at McNeil’s son. But John McNeil is serving a life sentence. Did we mention the guy he killed was white?

Turning the Tables

But now let’s move from the obvious to questions that are perhaps not so obvious: Why the reaction to the reaction? Why the state of denial that racism still exists? Why the claims of “double standards” and “media bias”?  Why the intensive campaign to vindicate the killer and vilify the victim?

It’s surely no coincidence that most – well okay, approximately exactly all of this reactionism is being perpetrated by radical “conservatives”.  Some right-wing websites have even circulated an unflattering photo  falsely identified as Martin. Are these folks just being racist? Not necessarily, though it wouldn’t be wise to rule it out. Although “conservatives” often vehemently, even indignantly deny it, racism is an implicit building block of modern faux-conservatism. But please, don’t take my word for that. I’ll gladly defer to the ultimate authority on the topic: the most revered Founding Father  of the movement, the late great William F. “Billy Bob” Buckley.

Still, there are other factors besides racism that might explain why right-wingers like to pretend that everything is peachy-keen as far as race relations go.  For example, they generally oppose policies designed to remedy racial inequality – e.g. affirmative action. Of course, they will maintain that their reason for doing so is that such programs are ineffective; and sometimes they might even have a valid point. But I really suspect that this is not so much a motivation as is a fundamental resistance to addressing social problems in any form. Accordingly, such individuals are often in obstinate denial that racism exists – except among blacks!

The G Factor

But most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that Trayvon Martin was killed with a g-u-n. And neo-“conservatism” is quite cozy with the gun culture, which tends to regard gunpowder as the ultimate panacea. After every school shooting du jour, they will pipe up in thunderous chorus to insist that guns were not in the least to blame, and those 27 people just as easily could have been killed by a pencil, and this kind of thing would never happen if only we had more guns in our schools. No, that’s not an exaggeration. People really say things like that.

So maybe, just maybe, they are attacking a dead kid and glorifying his killer because they want to defend the illusion that nobody ever gets killed with a gun except bad guys and the victims of bad guys – which ignores the nagging fact that one of the fastest ways to create a bad guy is to take a good guy and give him a gun. Maybe, just maybe, their real intent is to prevent people from reaching the “wrong” conclusion: namely, that a firearm is a lethal toy that never should end up in the hands of … well, a “fucking punk”.