17 July 2013

The Zimerman Case: double standards and color-blindness

Cal Thomas wonders why the media doesn't seem to value Joshua Chellew's life as much as it did Trayvon Martin's? As right-wing media readers are well aware, Chellew, a Georgia man, died after being run over by a car earlier this month. He was run over by a car after he had been forced onto the highway by four assailants who had been beating him up and finally left him unconscious in the road. The four men are being charged with felony murder and violation of the state's Street Gang Act. As that detail may tell you, the four suspects are black. Joshua Chellew was white, and as if to prove Thomas's point, the columnist himself neglected to name Chellew in his column. The Republican blogosphere notwithstanding, Thomas claims to have seen "no national media coverage" of the Chellew case, and he blames that on some sort of double standard. He suggests that national neglect of Chellew's death might reinforce the belief that prosecution (or persecution) of George Zimmerman, Martin's killer, was motivated by politics more than by a desire for justice. "You might conclude that if the victim had been white and the perpetrator black the media would have shown little or no interest," just as (he claims) the media has shown little or no interest in Chellew and his attackers.

There probably is a double standard at work here, but a double standard for what? All life is precious, or so nearly all of us claim to believe, but not all murder is news. So what makes murder news? Celebrity, of course, but neither Trayvon Martin nor George Zimmerman were celebrities until their fatal encounter last year. Something else was at work to make their story newsworthy. Whether that something was a double standard depends on whether an observer like Cal Thomas actually believes that the Chellew killing deserves coverage equal to the killing of Martin. Thomas has two choices here. He can say that neither the Martin nor the Chellew death is really national news, so that something was fishy about the publicity given the Martin death. Or he can say that the Chellew death deserves the same level of coverage that the Martin death received, in which case he can criticize the national media for failing or refusing to recognize that the two incidents are essentially similar crimes. In either case, from Thomas's perspective, the blame lies with the national (or "mainstream") media and the civil-rights community. They are guilty either of blowing an ordinary incident out of proportion for political reasons, or of treating white-on-black killing as somehow worse (and thus more newsworthy) than black-on-white killing. I suspect that Thomas would actually agree with both propositions.

There's no point in denying that many people believe that when a white person kills a black person, on some level the one has killed the other because the other was black. The evidence, such as it is, that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin, deeming him suspicious while identifying him as black to a 911 dispatcher, cinches the case as far as many are concerned. It's also indisputable that not so many people assume that in the vice versa case, when a black person kills a white person, the victim died for being white. It's also very likely that anyone who suggested such a thing would be labeled a racist himself. But if anyone believes that no one has the right to assume a racist motive on the part of a black killer of a white, are they obliged to judge the vice versa case by the same standard? The point may be moot in the Zimmerman case if you equate his profiling of Martin as an almost literal smoking gun, but in general it is the presumption of racist motive that makes white-on-black killing newsworthy. There is always a temptation to see every such killing as an extension of some long-simmering race war, but black-on-white killing isn't often seen the same way, except by obvious racists. But if it's racist to see black-on-white killing as racially motivated, why isn't it racist to assume racist motive in white-on-black killing? Unfortunately for would-be objective observers like Thomas, this is where the history they'd like to put aside comes in. The dark history of racism in the U.S. inescapably shapes perceptions of current events, and people can't simply be exhorted to set it aside, especially when they think they see that history perpetuated into the present.

As Thomas sees it, that history only feeds "our never-ending racial double standard." As a result, "Certain behaviors and language are tolerated, while others are not. Some people can get away with language that others cannot." Against this, he argues, "What is needed is one standard. One national identity. One America." A noble goal, but not as easily realized as Thomas probably thinks. Double standards are a complication of the pluralism Americans welcome as intrinsic to their national identity as "a nation of nations." Against pluralism stands nativism and populism, the identification of the nation with one particular nation or culture. A pluralist nation can only reach the point of "one national identity" through fitful evolution; some perceived double standards are kinks being worked out in the process. Nativism offers a simpler, quick-fix alternative: all newcomers should conform to the founding culture, which for Thomas is Anglo-American Christendom. For his ancestors in the 19th century, it would more specifically have been Protestantism. The specifics need not detain us. The main point to make is that the U.S. has repeatedly repudiated nativism and its demands for cultural conformity. Doing so has a price; none of us can simply command that everyone else see things the same way we do, nor can we take it for granted that the way we see things is the objective way, while every other way is biased. Thomas is clearly convinced that those who remain angry at George Zimmerman and still want him to suffer some penalty for killing Trayvon Martin are wrong in some way that he perceives as objective truth, even though he admits at the start of his column that "We are so programmed by our history with race in America that reaction to the acquittal ... depends largely upon one’s individual, even group experience." He can say that, on one hand, yet on the other we don't see him questioning his own assumptions (about the moral equivalence of the Chellew killing, for instance) the way he questions the assumptions of the anti-Zimmerman camp. He comes from a national heritage of double standards, yet acts as if the people most victimized by double standards in our history are the principal proponents of double standards today, if not the inventors of double standards in America. As long as his attitude persists, so will double standards.


Anonymous said...

The problem with that "one America" is that the white majority does NOT welcome racial minorities into it. After centuries of slavery, there was still about 100 years where blacks were not allowed into the same restaurants, the same clubs, the same stores, even to drink from the same waterfountains. This mentality still exists among the "conservatives", especially those with little or no real education.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the defense attorney in this case will dig up every schoolyard fight Chellew was ever in to prove he was a "gangsta" (or whatever the white version is), every parking ticket he's ever received, anything bad his neighbors may have to say.
Let's fact it; Trayvon Martin was as much on trial as was Zimmerman. That's what made that particular travesty so appalling.

Anonymous said...

Your profile implies that you too are a proponent of a long-standing double standard. I am Caucasian, American woman. My monthly income is living proof that race is not the only bias in the U.S. However, I believe that Chellew's murderers should be charged with a hate crime. Unfortunately, without the media pressure Chellew's family won't see justice either. Sadly this type of crime is common in that community and will continue to be so with conservative budget cuts.

Anonymous said...

Here's an even more interesting comparison. In a case from Jacksonville, a black woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting her gun into a wall to ward off an abusive ex-husband (who admitted to threatening her and to physically abusing his "5 baby mommas").

Anonymous said...

"Conservative budget cuts"? Let's agree to call them what they are: Conservative redistribution of wealth in the form of increased defense spending and tax cuts for their political campaign financiers.

proletkult said...

Regarding my profile:

Occupation Rabble Rouser and poisoned thorn in the side of conservatism.
Location Anytown, Bluestate, United States
Introduction I'm a socialist. I make no bones about it, nor do I seek to hide the fact. Jesus was a socialist. I am not a christian, but I believe I do a better job at following his teachings than most "christians" in America.
Interests Music, Movies, Education, Learning, Surrealism, Electronica, Poetry, Digital Art
Favorite Movies Lord of the Rings, Apocalypse Now, Sunset Boulevard, Casablanca, Star Wars, Lost Highway
Favorite Music Electronic, Goth, Industrial, Ambient, Darkwave, Coldwave, New Wave, some Punk.
Favorite Books The Dune series, Niven's "Known Space" stories, Gibson's "Cyberpunk" stories, anything by Harlan Ellison
Why does the color blue mean raspberry-flavored?
Because blue is the color of spineless democrats and raspberries are soft and squishy - just like democrats.

I'm not really sure how that makes me a "proponent of a long-standing double standard." Unless you are an ideologist who assumes anyone who disagrees with you the slightest bit is "the other". It only proves your two-dimensional thinking, not any bias on my part.