The Sean Taylor murder ignited what has to rank as the dumbest, wrong-headed orgy of stereotype laced speculation in living memory. The instant the Washington Redskins all-pro safety was gunned down in his suburban Miami-Dade County home, a pack of talking head sports analysts, writers, and fans filled the airwaves and newsprint with their see I told you so pontifications that Taylor's alleged thug life style did him in.
The initial accounts of his murder fed ample fuel to the contention of the self-styled experts that the supposed self-destructive ghetto culture has done in countless numbers of young black males. Taylor, of course, was the latest, but by no means the only tragic example of that. They insisted without a shred of evidence that the break-in at his home was not random, that he was a target, and that the killing was a hit.
The initial news accounts were a heavy handed pile on of Taylor's misdeeds, run-ins and altercations with the law. Subsequent news accounts dropped the obsessive itemizing of the full litany of Taylor's missteps. But they still managed to do a sneaky broken record sounding reminder that Taylor had had past problems with the law. That further imprinted in much of the public's skulls that Taylor was a bad guy and that there had to be a direct connect between his past, that really wasn't past, and the murder.
The arrest of four suspects in the Taylor killing, of course, makes the speculation seem just what it was dumb, and ill-informed and worse driven by the skewed, negative typecast of young black males such as Taylor as inherently crime-prone, dysfunctional, menaces to society. The four suspects by their own admission went to the home solely to commit a burglary and not to kill Taylor. There is no evidence that any of them were acquaintances of Taylor, let alone that he had any unsavory dealings with them.
Yet the ease in which so many blithely jumped to the conclusion that Taylor was a victim of his past is no surprise. It fit neatly the standard, and all too infuriating pattern that when a young black male, even, or maybe especially, a famed black athlete or celebrity meets tragedy, the automatic assumption is that the violence was organically linked to their criminal or checkered lifestyle. The usual suspects are gangs, drugs, bad crowd, and the wallow by young black males in hip hop, and rap music that glorifies and encourages gangsterism, misogyny, rebellion, and anti-social behavior.
Other than his reputation as an aggressive, hard hitting player, with a bit of swagger, and that's sanctioned fare in football jock culture and reveled in by the fans, there was absolutely no evidence that Taylor remotely fit the bad guy image on the streets. Friends, relatives, teammates, Redskin coaches and management repeatedly told of a young man who was a quiet, introverted, stay at home, family man. They also burst with pride and admiration that Taylor was fast evolving into a respected team leader. This was the diametric opposite of the stereotypical, chip on the shoulder, troubled image of young black males that many believe, or want to believe.
There were two tragedies in the Taylor murder. The first is the murder itself. It snuffed out the life of a talented, promising, young man who was well on his way to becoming a solid role model and leader for his teammates and other young players, and in time may well have been that same solid role model off the field as well.
The second is that for an enraging instant it gave the legions of know it alls the irresistible chance to point the blame finger at the killer lifestyle that supposedly ensnares all young black males, and that included Taylor. Fortunately, the arrests of the suspects and their confession of what actually happened that fateful evening at the Taylor home gives lie to that notion. But even in Taylor's death, and even after the truth came out about it, the truth is still a casualty to stereotypes. Witness this, every news account of the arrests, confessions, and background on information on the suspects, was still punctuated with the reminder of Taylor's scrapes with the law. The thug life fascination with black males is still very much alive and kicking in some press rooms, and beyond.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)