Tuesday, April 03, 2012

When All You See is Race, Perhaps Race is An Issue

Pat Buchanan recently made an observation most people would agree with:
If it had been a white teenager who was shot, and a 28-year-old black guy who shot him, the black guy would have been arrested.

So assert those demanding the arrest of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.

And they may be right.
Unfortunately, he couldn't stop there. His continued argument could reasonably be summarized as, "But why get worked up about it?"

John Casey at The Non Sequitur points out that other mainstream pundits are, in essence, in Buchanan's camp, asserting some form of "relation[ship] between 'unarmed black teenager is shot under puzzling and racially charged circumstances' and 'black people shoot each other all of the time'". Will attempts to characterize the Trayvon Martin shooting as having "been forced into a particular narrative to make it a white-on-black". But unless you're cool with the idea that a black kid can be shot by a white guy, with people like George Will and Pat Buchanan lecturing that it's understandable because black men are so dangerous, and with Buchanan flat-out admitting the credibility of the argument that were the participants races reversed Zimmerman may well be in jail, you can't blame others for injecting race into the discussion.

People like Will and Buchanan should start by examining their own thesis: the idea that nobody cares about black-on-black crime. Via Jamelle Bouie, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a rebuttal to the notion that African American communities are complacent about or indifferent to black-on-black violence. Bouie observes,
In addition to highlighting the obvious truth that black people care about what happens in their neighborhoods, it’s also worth pointing out the degree to which “black-on black” is a stupid way to understand or contexualize crime. Implicit in the description is the idea that crime committed against blacks by blacks has a racial component—that victims are targeted on the basis of their blackness.

The truth is that crime has more to do with proximity and opportunity than anything else. If African Americans are more likely to be robbed, or injured, or killed by other African Americans, it’s because they tend to live in close proximity to each other. Like most people, criminals almost always take the path of least resistance—nine times out of ten, they’ll go for the easy target.

To put this another way, white Americans are most likely to be victims of other whites, but there’s no talk of a “white-on-white” crime epidemic. Not that this is a surprise, but typical, explainable behavior becomes “pathology” when observed in African Americans. That this still has currency is incredibly frustrating.
Pat Buchanan is a great case in point,
It is a country where white criminals choose black victims in 3 percent of their crimes, but black criminals choose white victims in 45 percent of their crimes.
Choose? We're principally talking about opportunistic crime, are we not? But that mindset makes it easier, I suppose, for people who aren't actually victims of crimes to "choose" the race of their make-believe attackers. What's the point of the Will-Buchanan exercise if not to justify treating all young black men as potential criminals, shoot first and check for Skittles later.

Here's something for Will and Buchanan to think about: In the other cases, nobody is claiming that no crime was committed. Nobody is suggesting that the victims deserved to be victimized by virtue of living in dangerous neighborhoods or having the wrong color of skin. Okay, so the clothing argument sometimes does come up if the victim is a woman, but... come on.

"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to wear hoodies...."

Pat Buchanan complains that civil rights leaders are upset about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and hypothesizes that they would be silent had the races of the shooter and victim been reversed. That's quite possible because, oddly enough, people who focus their attention on civil rights issues tend to speak out on cases that implicate civil rights issues. By way of comparison, you could take a certain Irish Catholic commentator and note that he doesn't spend much time railing about the war on Ramadan or the unfair treatment of Muslims by the media, but if the topic turns to Christmas, away we go.... And yes, even if we weren't talking about a police agency with a spotty history on issues of race, the failure to adequately investigate the shooting of a young black man by anybody is likely to raise the hackles of civil rights leaders, perhaps especially those who lived through the 1950's and 1960's.

You would think we could establish at least this much common ground: Whatever else you think, it is appalling that a teenager ended up being targeted and shot because he was wearing a hoodie with the hood up on a rainy day, and doing absolutely nothing that was illegal or otherwise suspicious. It is appalling that people within the police department responsible for the investigation leaked irrelevant material about Martin in order to discredit him. It is appalling how eagerly some people grasp at any sign of trouble in Martin's background - none of which factored into Zimmerman's choices and decisions - as somehow making him deserving of a bullet.

For most people who are offended by the shooting, it's not primarily a racial issue. It's a case of a young man who was pursued and shot for no good reason, with the police dropping the ball on the case. Sure, race comes into play at the level of the police investigation, where the department's seeming acceptance of the stereotype advanced by Will and Buchanan is viewed by many as playing a role in their casual approach to investigation and the decision not to charge Zimmerman. But what those who snicker, "Zimmerman is a registered Democrat" or "Zimmerman's mom was Hispanic" don't (or perhaps aren't bright enough to) understand is that they are the ones introducing identity politics into the case. It's they who don't understand that the justified anger at the shooting of Martin and the treatment of the investigation (and of Martin's family) by the police is not dependent upon Zimmerman's political beliefs or ethnicity.

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