You know what’s great about getting a print magazine or newspaper? That you see things you wouldn’t normally see. Last night I was going through the print version of TAC and read Ron Unz’s great piece on how the US media determines what we talk about and take seriously — and how unreliable that media can be in determining what we see and don’t see. This essay has been available on the TAC website, but for some reason I’d missed it. If the print mag hadn’t forced me to go through its content in an orderly way, I’d never have seen it.
I’m glad I read it, because it makes me consider again how constructed our sense of social, cultural, and political reality is, and about what we’re not being told by the media. When I say “constructed,” I mean determined by the data and arguments that are presented to us. What we often don’t know is which data are being withheld from us. Having worked inside it for 20 years, I am well aware of how producers, editors, and reporters censor themselves. I’m no doubt guilty of it too, in ways that I’m not aware of, but that would be obvious to others. Confirmation bias and its related epistemological fallacies are human traits; none of us are immune.
The other night I was talking with N., a public school teacher about this sort of thing. We were talking about how hard it is to get people to take seriously information that radically challenges what they prefer to believe about the world. We were talking about economics, the environment, religion, and politics. Then N. brought up the case of a motivational speaker his principal once brought into the high school. This speaker, N. said, presented an “Afrocentric” view on education to a nearly all-black audience of high schoolers, telling them that they should not believe their white teachers. N., who is white, was shocked by the flat-out racism on display, endorsed by his school’s administration, but more bothered by the fact that this speaker had just radically undermined N.’s authority as a teacher. N. said it’s hard enough to get his students, most of whom are poor, to take school seriously; now this racist speaker had made it far more difficult to teach, and by teaching these kids that the race of the teacher is a reliable guide to the truth of the information the teacher presents, potentially crippled these students’ ability to learn.
Teaching people to be skeptical of the world as presented to them is a good thing. But teaching them to be skeptical of the world as presented to them because of the race of the presenter is wicked. Students who go out into the world believing this will fail, because reality will not conform to their false epistemology. Of course, that could just solidify their view that the fix is in.
We err when we think that only other people are subject to this kind of confirmation bias. I’ve seen it in myself, even as I’ve looked down on others for being so gullible. Nothing feeds confirmation bias like fear and anger. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was far away from my family and friends, and worried sick for them. For those first two or three days, I believed every crazy rumor about how bad things were, because it validated my fear for their welfare. As I’ve written many times, my fear and anger over 9/11 caused me to believe anything that validated the proposed war on Iraq, and to discount information that worked against going to war — this, even though I believed myself to be rational and honest, and those who disagreed with me to be doing so in bad faith.
All of this is prelude to what’s on my mind this morning: the beating of that white family in Baton Rouge by black thugs who assaulted them for being “in the wrong neighborhood,” as one of those charged with the crime allegedly told the victim. As I wrote yesterday, it turns out that the family, who hasn’t been identified officially, comes from my town, and my wife knows the mom. She is a cancer patient, and is bald from chemo. These thugs assaulted a middle-aged woman who obviously had cancer, because she was “in the wrong neighborhood.”
Which is to say, because they were white.
The East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney, who is white, doesn’t see it that way. Reading the story from the Baton Rouge paper today, I see that he’s downplaying race as a motivating factor in this attack:
According to the affidavit, the male victim had been waiting to pay for his gas when Dickerson approached him and told him he was “in the wrong neighborhood and he was not going to make it out.”
A witness, Mykeisha Henderson, said the fight did not appear to be racially motivated and began with Dickerson teasing the victim for wearing a pink shirt.
“The man said, ‘Do you feel offended by my shirt?’ ” she said of the victim. “The white guy was minding his business. He wasn’t doing nobody nothing.”
According to initial reports, the first words exchanged were about the victim’s shirt, Kelly confirmed. “It escalated from there,” he said.
Dickerson then punched the male victim, who was knocked unconscious and woke up in a hospital, according to the affidavit.
The victim’s wife, who had been waiting in their vehicle, ran to help her husband but was also struck and knocked unconscious, the affidavit says. The couple’s teenage daughter told police she saw Simmons punch her mother in the face, and that her mother fell and hit her head on the ground, according to the affidavit.
All three assailants fled the scene, Kelly said, but they were followed by a witness, who provided a description of the suspects’ vehicle to responding officers. The victims, meanwhile, received aid from a number of other witnesses at the gas station.
Those people happened to be black, Moore noted, seeking to forestall any racial tensions.
“The allegations are horrendous,” the district attorney added. “But this isn’t all black versus white. It’s bad versus good.”
This is dishonest. The fact that good black people stepped up to help the white family doesn’t negate the apparent fact that the black assailants here attacked the family because of their race. I can’t imagine what “in the wrong neighborhood” means aside from race. If some white thugs targeted a black family in a white neighborhood and used that kind of language, there would be no doubt at all what it meant. One would expect good white people to help the victimized black family, but that wouldn’t make the attack itself non-racial.
On the other hand, a (black) witness is on record saying the attack didn’t appear to be racially motivated. I’d like to know more. She may be right, but the plain meaning of the alleged assailant’s words indicate racial motive. There may be another explanation, though.
Why does this matter? Well, it matters if you believe in so-called “hate crimes.” I don’t believe in them. I believe all crimes are in some fashion crimes of hatred, and that it is wrong to criminalize a mindset. The DA is choosing so far not to lodge hate crime charges in this case. That’s fine with me, but if he has lodged hate crimes charges in similar cases before, he has an obligation to explain why they don’t apply in this case.
But I don’t care about hate crime as a category. I do care about how the media treat stories like this. I find it impossible to believe that if this horrific crime had happened to a black family minding its own business in a white neighborhood, that it wouldn’t be all over the national media. Remember the Howard Beach attack, back in the Eighties? Here’s what happened there:
Michael Griffith, Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes hadn’t planned on getting stuck in Howard Beach just after midnight on Dec. 20.
The three black men hadn’t planned on the Buick they were riding in to break down on an isolated, marshy section of Cross Bay Boulevard. And surely no one expected that the 23-year-old Griffith would be forced to run for his life – and lose it.
The driver stayed with the car while Griffith, Sandiford and Grimes walked north on the boulevard looking for a pay phone or a mechanic. The men stopped at New Park Pizza, a restaurant at 156-71 Cross Bay Blvd., where they were told by a man behind the counter that no phone was available for them to use. Hungry, they ordered slices and sat discussing what to do.
When Griffith and his companions walked out of the restaurant, they were accosted by more than a dozen white men shouting, “Nigger, you don’t belong here!” The gang attacked the three men, beating them with bats and fists.
Jon Lester, 17, a mobster-wannabe, had riled up the gang at a local party and led them to the restaurant after learning the “intruders” were there. “Let’s go kill them,” Lester told the crowd.
Griffith and Sandiford, 36, managed to bolt from the gang. They ran north and then west, with the gang at their heels. When the gang cornered the two men at the edge of the Belt Parkway they cried, “God don’t kill me!” But the blows kept coming, as the two men managed to slip through a three-foot hole in the parkway fence – where they split up.
Sandiford ran west, Griffith east. Sandiford got about three blocks away before the gang caught up with him. He screamed for help as the teens delivered blow after blow.
Griffith sought escape by running across the Belt. He was struck by a passing car, his body catapulted 25 feet into the air – landing almost an exit away from the point of impact.
As news of the attacks blared from media reports, a stunned city awoke to a climate of racial rage. In just hours, Howard Beach was transformed from a neighborhood to an incident.
It was a horrible racist crime, and received widespread national attention. It was a violent racist attack by white thugs against black motorists who were told by their assailants that they were in the wrong neighborhood — this, as justification for the assault. Howard Beach was huge news, for a long time.
Aside from the fact that a man was killed in Howard Beach, but no one died on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge, how do these crimes differ in motivation?
Why, in the media’s judgment, did Howard Beach tell us something about The Way We Live Today, but Scenic Highway is just one of those awful things, not connected to race in America, or anything else? I’m not asking rhetorically; I think it’s an important question. Everybody in America knew about Howard Beach; almost nobody knows about Scenic Highway. Hell, even the Baton Rouge paper was late to the story, following TV news by a day.
My view is that the US media believes its job is more to manage the news than to report the news, which is why some racist beatings are more equal than others. But then, I have an emotional stake in this story, not only because the victims are from my town and one of them is known to my wife, but also because I’ve driven past that gas station before, and almost stopped there for gas once. I could see that happening to me. I say that to admit that my own emotional involvement in the story shades my reaction to these facts.
How do we interpret the facts in these cases reliably? How do we see what’s really there?