The following post was originally published April 6th, 2012, but given the verdict in the Zimmerman trial and the protests in response, it bears republishing.
During all the recent public discussions about the Trayvon Martin case, I’ve been hesitant to speak too quickly or confidently; new “witnesses” and “evidence” seems to appear every day, and now that the DOJ has been pressured to immediately and carefully investigate, I’m less interested in speculating on the details of the case, until the trial at least.
The media’s coverage and our public discussion of this tragedy has been far less obscured than the “facts”: much, if not most of the discourse has been deceptive, manipulative, sensational, and ignorant–at best. My column last week on the ignorant and destructive use of images of the “wrong” Trayvon Martin taken from Facebook is one example of this. Here are a few more examples of the horrible journalism surrounding this case.
Last night, I found another painful example of the way bad journalism and ignorant and lazy public discourse causes all kinds of harm. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic wrote a fantastic post answering the question, “Why Don’t Black People Protest ‘Black-on-Black Violence’?”
Coates describes this question, accurately I think, as a “meme” that was articulated by Juan Williams at The Wall Street Journal but has been memeing its way across Facebook statuses, Tweets, HuffPo comments, and YouTube channels in last few weeks. Williams asks:
“The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida has sparked national outrage, with civil rights leaders from San Francisco to Baltimore leading protests calling for a new investigation and the arrest of the shooter. But what about all the other young black murder victims? Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black. And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them?”
To which Coates replies (paraphrase): “there are marches all over, if you bother to take the time to look!”
Both articles are worth reading; Williams rightfully points to the way we tend to ignore the very serious problems facing the contemporary black community. However, by protesting against the illusionary lack of protests against black-on-black violence (and also, perhaps, by heavily stressing the black community problems without addressing the structural causes of some of the problems), Williams lends credence to the bigoted idea that the real problem with the black community is their inherent laziness, immorality, and criminal tendencies.
Rather than give some hypothetical example of what this racist belief might look like, I’ll let Mr. Barney Quinn, who left this amazing specimen of a comment on my column last week (bolded for emphasis, incase you want to skim, because you’re lazy):
“As an outsider there are several things that concern me about the Martin case. Paramount is the attempt – primarily by black Americans – to bend everything into a race war. Rather than face the facts that demographically, they have some horrendous socio-economic stats that are mainly of their own causing, they continually blame mythical whites for their problems. Slavery was NOT a white thing. Slavery was – and still is – a practice common to many African and Middle Eastern nations. Yes, whites did go to the slave markets and purchase slaves, but the slaves they bought were captured from neighbouring tribes by their fellow blacks. Whites did not start slavery; they ended it. But facts don’t count with this gang of thugs and opportunists who are bent on using race and tribe for personal gain. In my country any person issuing a bounty as happened in this affair, against George Zimmerman, would be immediately charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The person who published what he thought was Zimmerman’s address would be charged with violation of privacy laws. Obama, who commented that ‘if I had a son he’d look like Treyvon’ would be charged with incitement to riot. Perhaps most Americans haven’t noticed, but their country is becoming ‘Africanized’. By that I mean it is becoming increasingly like that bastion of misery, poverty, lawlessnes, criminality, and injustice that is Africa.”
Or, applied to Coates’ article, the belief might go something like this: There are no black protests against black violence because blacks fundamentally refuse to accept the fact that they, not white people, are the cause of all their problems.
Beliefs like this can develop subtly, without even the conscience intent to discriminate against anyone. One day you notice a friend’s tweet (or a WSJ editorial) which reads, “Where are all the protests against BLACK-ON-BLACK violence?” And you think to yourself, “You know, I can’t think of one march against gang violence, and here all these black people are yelling and screaming about one black boy who was probably killed in self defense.” And without the extra effort taken to question and research protests against black-on-black violence, a stereotype about the indifference of blacks towards crime in their community has formed.