Last week, my friend and podcast partner Chez Pazienza wrote a piece about a case involving several African American youths in Norfolk, Virginia who allegedly beat up a pair of reporters from the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Dave Forster and Marjon Rostami. Forster happens to be white and Rostami is Iranian. I hastened to mention the races of everyone involved because it applies to the rest of the story. The incident went largely unnoticed in the press, mainly because the the Virginian-Pilot only published news of the incident in the form of a opinion piece written by Michelle Washington two weeks later. There's another reason it wasn't covered by the Pilot, and I'll get to that shortly.
Washington's opinion piece reached Matt Drudge's yellow-journalism desk and BLAM! Drudge posted a link to the op/ed with the predictably misleading headline: "100 Black Teens Beat White Couple in Norfolk... Media Bury Attack."
Every angry right-winger looking for an excuse for their ridiculous false equivalences about white racism versus "black racism" had a brand new hobby horse to ride. On Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly issued one of his personal jihads against the Virginian-Pilot, sending his creepy stalking danger-boy, Jesse Watters, to Virginia to accost the editor of the paper, Denis Finley, and find out why he was obviously helping to oppress the white majority. Why would the newspaper wait for so long before publishing the story? Why won't this newspaper get its boot off the neck of white people?! Why does the news media hate white people?! I'm paraphrasing, of course. But that was the subtext of O'Reilly's segments.
During one segment, O'Reilly and contributor Bernard Goldberg, in a fantastically propagandized illustration of the wealthy white majority playing the oppressed victim, lamented what they considered to be a journalistic "double-standard." The Trayvon Martin case, a white-on-black crime, received and continues to receive ample media attention while the reportedly black-on-white Forster/Rostami case was only given an initial opinion page write-up two weeks later (there have since been numerous stories about the assault).
Chez defended Bill O'Reilly and Fox News Channel for saying that there's a double-standard at play: on one hand the press and, specifically, cable news continues to be outraged by the Trayvon Martin case, while, on the other hand, the Virginian-Pilot case didn't receive any attention at all, thus ignoring a black-on-white crime and illustrating some sort of double-standard epidemic. (I should note here that this column isn't necessarily a refutation of Chez's piece. Consider this another point of view on double-standards.)
In a way, both O'Reilly and Chez are correct. In a way. There's absolutely a double-standard because the crimes -- the Trayvon Martin case and the Forster/Rostami case -- are vastly different in almost every way and should, therefore, be treated with vastly different coverage. They're different in terms of outcome, they're different in terms of details and each have very different historical and contemporaneous contexts.
The truth is, not every white-on-black crime is given Trayvon Martin-level coverage. Not by a long shot. So why was there so much outrage swirling around Trayvon?
Let's do the list.
First, Trayvon was a kid walking through a white neighborhood armed with nothing but snacks. Second, Trayvon was shot and killed. Third, and most suspiciously, law enforcement released George Zimmerman without charging him with any crimes, and Zimmerman was allowed to keep his firearm. Fourth, there's a sinister gun violence meets gun control meets NRA component here. Fifth, there appeared to be details that the Sanford police were withholding from the public, making it seem like yet another example of whites covering-up a white-on-black crime. Sixth, there's evidence of racial profiling by Zimmerman. And finally, and most importantly, the historical context is far more complicated when it comes to white-on-black crime, as well as the white presumption of African American guilt when the racial roles are reversed. More on that presently.
Meanwhile in Virginia, even though the attack was clearly traumatic for Foster and Rostami, they weren't hospitalized nor did they receive medical treatment for their minor injuries. There's no evidence of racial profiling -- in other words, there's no evidence that the attack was racially motivated and it probably wouldn't have happened at all if Forster hadn't jumped out of his car to confront the youths. Even though a rock hit Forster's car window, the window doesn't appear to have been shattered. And the police have already arrested a kid for throwing the rock, while there are warrants out for another assailant. Again, while traumatic, it's a far cry from the ugliness and inexplicable mysteries of the Trayvon case. No potential cover-ups. No fatalities. No serious injuries. The initial characterization by Michelle Washington and Drudge that "hundreds" of black teens wantonly beat a white couple (only "a handful" were involved), hospitalizing them, while their car was trashed appears to be highly exaggerated because, if true, the injuries wouldn't be nearly as minor and, as it turns out, the reporters drove their own vehicle home that night and voluntarily declined to be named in a news story. Police chief Sharon Chamberlin said, "This is a situation where you had a whole bunch of [movie theater] events let out all at once, you had a lot of people on the street, you had an assault occur and that was isolated with a small number of people." So another major question here: is this even newsworthy? Perhaps it would be in a small town police-scanner rag, but Norfolk is not a small town.
Chez wrote: "O'Reilly may be a pompous buffoon, but I dare anyone to challenge his assertion that were the races reversed in the case in Virginia -- had it been a group of white people who attacked an African-American man and woman in their car -- it would've been the lead on Al Sharpton's MSNBC show every night since the day it happened."
Given the details and the minor "simple assault" nature of the fracas, and contrary to what Chez wrote in support of O'Reilly, it's questionable whether Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would care about it at all. It's a relatively nothing case, especially contrasted against the gory details of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
So to compare the Forster/Rostami case with the Trayvon Martin case is a glaringly false equivalence and two different standards of judgment have to be applied.
But let's say, yes, if the incident in Norfolk had been more serious, maybe with a fatality, and let's say the races had been reversed -- a group of whites fatally attacking an African American couple -- the coverage would probably have been appropriately huge. And here's why. In addition to the hypothetically fatal crime itself, there's a considerably wicked history in America of white racism, oppression and violence against black people, which, to an extent, continues today. It's the historical and contemporaneous context that ultimately changes how these stories are, and should be, covered.
Black people are thirteen percent of the American population -- therefore members of the minority race beating up two members of the majority race is quite different in a societal sense than a member of the majority race shooting the minority race in apparent cold blood. White-on-black crime comes from a position of power. The opposite -- the minority oppressing the majority -- is impossible.
Beyond the demographics, and beyond the oppression, or even the stripping of cultural identity and the enslavement of African Americans prior to the Civil War, the last 150 years have witnessed countless examples of black people being villainized, oppressed, lynched, tortured and segregated by white people. Even after the slaves were freed, the effort to reconstruct the nation led to the North and South agreeing upon a common enemy to blame for the war and the subsequent hardships it caused: black people became a national scapegoat as society embraced the Lost Cause Mythology and the absolution of the South for seceding. Black people, they said, were responsible for 600,000 dead Americans; black people nearly destroyed the nation; black people began to seek power over white people, so they had to be held down and persecuted. They were portrayed in pop culture -- silent films, minstrel shows and cartoons -- as lazy, shiftless rapists. Soon, neo-slavery cropped up in the south, whereby black people could be arrested for nonsense crimes like "vagrancy" -- being unemployed, basically -- then disappeared and sold into secret chain gangs dotting the countryside where they would live out their lives without trial or connection to their families. Jim Crow laws, prevalent into the 1960s, and even modern purges of voter registration lists in Florida and elsewhere have disenfranchised black people and relegated them to second class citizens. Harassment, lynchings and beatings from mobs of white people in white hoods forced black people to live in fear and inferiority. Law enforcement and the judicial system was stacked against black people, and when this system wasn't selling black people into neo-slavery, it was sending large numbers of black people to prison and the electric chair. Even today, the Republican Party engages in Southern Strategy politics -- demonizing black people in order to motivate angry white voters, not unlike what Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and others often do to pump up their ratings.
Additionally, when corporations, industry and jobs bugged out of the cities for the suburbs, and, eventually, for cheap labor overseas, corporate abandonment left our urban centers stranded and without anywhere to turn for legitimate work. City housing and education crumbled, money was scarce and, regardless of the ethnic group, drugs and gangs began to spring up out of a sense of despair and desperation. And, once again, urban black people were immediately blamed for the crime and the blight indicative of joblessness and desperation, even though it was the loss of jobs and industry that poisoned American cities. Now, with the exception of some efforts at gentrification, cities remain in constant turmoil which has only been exacerbated by the financial crisis. By the way, white conservatives have tried to blame black people for the recession, too -- all of those easy mortgages handed out like candy and squandered by black people who couldn't afford the payments.
These injustices are the context for the activist-perception and reporting of crimes like the Trayvon Martin killing and it only just begins to explain why there was such outrage generated around those proceedings. The Trayvon shooting and the handling of the case by law enforcement smelled all too familiar, and the past must not be repeated here. And so a line was drawn in the sand by activists and media personalities. Not again. Not now.
To be clear, none of these historical realities exculpates the crimes committed in Norfolk or Sanford or wherever. A crime is a crime and the people responsible for attacking Forster and Rostami should be arrested and charged (one person is already in custody). But this exhaustively lengthy context begins to explain why the crimes occur and how/why they're covered. If the press is a little tentative about covering black-on-white crime, especially when it's a minor non-fatal assault like the Forster/Rostami case, we can begin to understand why with the proper background. We can also understand, given all of these reasons, why a white-on-black crime might harken back to any of the countless atrocities committed against blacks by the white-dominated American power structure and, subsequently, we can also understand why African American activists like Al Sharpton and others are outraged when it happens. It makes complete sense given the prologue of the past.
Yes, there's a double-standard. And until there's full equality and the long slow process of racial healing is completed, the double-standard has to remain.
As for the media allegedly ignoring what appear to be black-on-white crimes, ask anyone associated with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson case if that's true.
UPDATE: Two points to clarify based on the comments. One, I'm not comparing the Trayvon case with the Norfolk case -- I'm disproving the comparison made by Bill O'Reilly and Fox News Channel. Two, if you notice at the very end, I referenced the OJ case indicating that there might not actually be a double-standard, given the unprecedented attention a black-on-white crime received in the press -- attention far exceeding the white-on-black Trayvon coverage. Three, for the benefit of the numerous commenters who don't read before commenting, I'll repeat a line I wrote above: "To be clear, none of these historical realities exculpates the crimes committed in Norfolk or Sanford or wherever. A crime is a crime and the people responsible for attacking Forster and Rostami should be arrested and charged (one person is already in custody)."
Crossposted at The Daily Banter.
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