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.

9 Ridiculously Predictable Responses to the Trayvon Travesty


1. The victim was put on trial.

Supposedly, it was the shooter who was tried for a crime. But the jurors were not allowed to hear the testimony of voice experts who say that he was not the one screaming for help in the  911 call.  They also were not allowed to hear about the accused’s arrest record, his alleged history of domestic violence, and other facts from his past that might paint him as a trigger-happy hothead unfit to watch anyone’s neighborhood.

They weren’t allowed to hear about Martin’s past, either (except for his pot smoking, which evidently was considered a vital ingredient); but there was no need. Propagandists already had done a thorough job of saturating the American psyche with an unflattering portrait of the youngster who was not around to defend himself, and suggesting that because he might not have been a model teen, he deserved whatever he got.

This included lies about his height and weight and photos falsely purported to be of him — circulated by individuals raging about the dishonesty of the “liberal” media for printing actual photos of Martin that were not up to date.  Heck, the brat even had — brace yourself — GOLD TEETH. Die, monster, die!

2. The verdict.

You seriously weren’t surprised, were you? Trayvon Martin had the NAACP behind him. His killer had the NRA. Get real. Nonetheless, one juror has stated that the accused “got away with murder”.

3. The media predicted riots.

Again.  And they failed to materialize. Again. Although some folks did their best to stir up trouble.

4. People made irrelevant comparisons.

It’s like clockwork. “Well hey, blacks kill each other in Chicago every day, so why make a big deal out of this killing?” The reactionaries don’t stop to consider that if indeed it “happens every day”, that makes it by definition less newsworthy. And why imply that we have to choose whether to care about a single murder victim, mass urban violence, or war overseas? Even the smallest of minds is capable of caring about more than one thing at once.

And of course they also trot out the instances in which a black person kills a white person, and ask where’s the outrage over those.

My old friends over at my favorite gun propaganda website, called (natch) The Truth About Guns, jumped on this bandwagon with a story titled “Black Man Shoots White Teen, Jury Says Self-Defense. And Nobody Cares”.  I assume the writer drew the conclusion that “nobody cares” because there hasn’t been the same level of media coverage or public outcry over the case referred to. He forgets to mention that the story is four years old. But more to the point, he incorrectly characterizes this incident as an “inverse image” of the Martin killing.

Not by a long shot. The black gunman, Roderick Scott, confronted not just one teenager but three. And he wasn’t stalking them or playing Batman; he discovered them actually committing a crime — i.e., burglarizing cars. Furthermore, he warned them that he was armed and ordered them to stay put until police arrive. Whereupon one of them charged him and he opened fire.  The one constant is that it appears both gunmen may have acted rashly, lending substance to the belief that possession of a firearm tends to induce an individual to use it unnecessarily; but the circumstances under which Roderick Scott took a life were quite different from those under which Trayvon Martin was gunned down.

Yet the writer of the piece on TTAG  lumps the incidents together and jointly moralizes thus:

Run with a bad crowd, bad things can happen. Act a certain way, dress a certain way, mouth off to the wrong person, and bad things can and do happen.

The problem with this grouping is that one might infer that by dressing and acting “a certain way”, and perhaps “mouthing off to the wrong person” Trayvon Martin was surely guilty of something that warranted his death. And that the boy Roderick Scott shot, who was actually committing a crime, was killed only because he was acting and dressing ” a certain way” or perhaps just “running with a bad crowd.” It’s creepy to realize that so many people who think this way are carrying loaded weapons.

Look closely at the supposedly parallel cases people throw at you, and you’re likely to find substantial distinctions like these. But in case you’re losing sleep over it, it’s probably true that there is more media coverage of whites killing blacks than the reverse. I’ve outlined some of the reasons for this in two previous posts on the topic. (Here and here.)

5. The gun culture waved its bloody flag.

The NRA attacked the media for covering the story, and attacked Attorney General Eric Holder for suggesting that states should review Stand Your Ground Laws — which supposedly means Holder is “pushing Obama’s (shudder) gun control agenda”.  The NRA’s solution for preventing more tragedy of this type is, of course, to pass even more Stand Your Ground laws. Stand Your Ground, which influenced at least one juror’s decision, is a type of law that makes it easier to gun someone down and claim it was self-defense. Except for when it backfires. In fact, Trayvon Martin was the one who stood his ground in Florida, and by reports he was doing well at it without the benefit of any metal implements. But then George someone invaded his ground and killed him.

6. All the usual suspects mouthed off.

Glenn Beck. Rush Limbaugh. Sean Hannity. Ted Nugent.  (The latter has such a long and fruitful tradition of bigoted, inflammatory, utterly delusional rhetoric that it was inevitable he would end up on the NRA board of directors.) They and their kindred were, as always, locked in mortal combat to see who could make the biggest ass of himself. Or herself — Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin are invariably in on the action as well, determined to demonstrate that they can be Stupid White Men along with the worst of them.

7. White males felt threatened.

Many of them seemed to fear that since it was a black youth killed, it might appear that all white men are killers of black children. Never mind that the killer was only half-white; it pays to be preemptively reactionary. There was even a meme in circulation to the effect that “only in Obama’s America could a brown man kill a black kid, and the white man get the blame.” Notice the linking of the whole thing to a racially mixed president? A nice, classy touch.

Folks. The racial tension Americans have inherited is directly descended from a very long and very brutal history of racial oppression by — drum roll, please — white men. So yeah, it kind of is the white man’s fault. Sorry to be the one to break the news.

8. “Conservatives” attacked “liberals”.

It is an unwritten but immutable law that any time a tragedy occurs, right-wing fanatics must exploit it for political purposes, and use it as an excuse to trash “liberals”. Always. Every time. With no exceptions. Ever. While accusing “liberals” of doing what they themselves are doing.

Accordingly, in one of those twists of Bizarro Planet logic that make the wingers so endlessly entertaining, they proclaimed that them librulz, by drawing attention to racial inequality are actually creating it — that by discussing the ethnic aspects of the Martin case, they are guilty of “race-baiting”. Because we all know that the only way to deal with a problem is to insert your head deep into your ass and pretend it doesn’t exist.

They even attacked President Obama on the same grounds.  (They’re under the illusion that he’s one of them librulz himself, but that’s another story.) One meme making the rounds said “If Trayvon Martin had been killed in Afghanistan, Obama wouldn’t even know his name.”

WTF???  Can you think of any president — or the leader of any nation — in the entire history of the world who was able to rattle off the name of every soldier who’d died in the line of duty? This has nothing to do with anything — except that Barack Obama is expected to perform 200 times as brilliantly as any mere mortal in order to avoid being classified as an evil failure.

9. Most people got it wrong.

Okay, so many of them librulz did make themselves easy targets. Not by “race-baiting”, but by focusing on the wrong question — just like practically everyone else.  It isn’t a matter of racism, but of racial bias/ racial inequality. It’s unlikely that Martin’s killer harbors any blatant hatred of African-Americans. What’s far more probable is that Martin’s ethnicity was a factor (even if an unconscious one) in his being targeted for harassment that led to his death.

I once attended a talk by former NBA superstar Bill Russell, who said something I’ll never forget: “I don’t care what color you are, if you say you’re not prejudiced, you’re lying.” He said prejudiced rather than racist, but they’re two markers on the same scale. And it was quite a punch in the gut to my teenage self who’d smugly assumed that I’d purged every remnant of my Southern WASP heritage.

I don’t know if Mr. Russell was entirely correct, but he was definitely on the right track.  As I’ve subsequently learned, most people do make snap judgments based on superficial characteristics, including skin color. Among other things, this means that people tend to consider darker skinned persons less trustworthy — and this attitude even prevails among darker skinned persons themselves! It’s a complicated problem with no pat solution. Sometimes its manifestation is very subtle and unconscious; sometimes it’s overt and ugly. But it’s always present.

Do them librulz sometimes go overboard in their consideration of race as a potential motive? Sure. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong to consider it all. Trayvon Martin is dead because someone regarded him as a “suspicious character”. And his killer is a free man because the jurors, despite their misgivings, felt compelled to accept his claim of self-defense — even though he instigated the altercation, aggressively stalking the youth even after being told by police to knock off the Rambo routine. If you’re really convinced that race couldn’t possibly have been a factor in all of this, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land.