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The Race-Baiting of America | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

The Race-Baiting of America

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A memorial is seen at the scene where Australian college student Christopher Lane, 23, of Melbourne, was found dead of a gunshot wound on Friday in Duncan, Oklahoma, August 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Bill Waugh)

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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As the nation takes stock of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, I’m listening to a news program playing a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking of peace and reconciliation and mountaintops to be crested. I’m also online, watching my screen blink with discussions about current events like the dismissal of a racial harassment suit against Paula Deen and the debate over New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. The decades-long span of unsolved issues and endless crises fills me with sadness and unease.

According to a recent Pew poll, “Blacks were nearly three times as likely as whites to be living in poverty. And the median net worth of white households was 14 times the median net worth of black households.” But this disparate reality is felt very differently: nearly twice as many blacks as whites feel that blacks are treated less fairly by police and the courts; blacks are three times more likely than whites to feel that blacks are treated less fairly in employment, education, hospitals and stores. These findings are consistent with a trend documented by a 2011 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science: whites now see anti-white bias as a bigger problem than bias against blacks—or as the study’s title puts it: “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.”

It is one problem to have immense disparities. It is quite another when those inequalities are rendered invisible by those who stoke the fears and resentments that apparently feed the nonempirical perceptions of many Americans. Take the media treatment of the searingly tragic murder of Christopher Lane, a white Australian student attending a university in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship. Three teens have been arrested for shooting him in the back while he was jogging, apparently because they were “bored.” But while that so-called boredom is being mined for all its shock value, it is far too cavalier a way to describe the well of such inhuman callousness. Indeed, together the three suspects had histories of assault, little to no schooling, imprisoned parents and untreated trauma from gun deaths in their own families.

Initial reports were that all three suspects were black. In fact, one of them was white, though one right-wing outlet blithely and wrongly substituted the image of an uninvolved, angry-looking black man in his place. But before this mistake was revealed, the pre-existing liturgy was pushing the rapture that only demagoguery can create. Lines were drawn so that “gun culture” referred to those white people ostensibly exercising their Second Amendment rights to stockpile weaponry for the apocalypse, while “gang culture” referred to those black people (rarely accorded the imagined grace of Second Amendment rights) who also stockpile weaponry for the apocalypse. In either case, some of these arms end up in the hands of the unstable or mentally ill, or children, or the outlandishly aggrieved, or the intentionally criminal. America is not only where Christopher Lane was killed, but also where—if we want to play the “reversals” game—the very next week, a black woman named Antoinette Tuff talked a disturbed young white man into putting down his AK-47 after he walked into an elementary school full of minority kids threatening a massacre. She did so by speaking to him in human, not bestial, terms. “I tried to commit suicide last year,” she said. “We all go through something in life.” America is also where there are more mass murders like Newtown and Aurora than anyplace on the planet other than war zones—and where, every day, more than 100 people of every stripe kill themselves, half by gunfire.

Eighty-four percent of white murder victims are killed by other whites; 93 percent of black victims are killed by other blacks. This violence is a national disgrace, a problem that knows no racial boundaries. We are a shoot-‘em-up nation. How, then, does the small fraction of interracial killings end up as the dominant narrative, cast in terms that play out fantasies of a race war?

Trayvon Martin is not the same person as the troubled teenagers who allegedly shot Christopher Lane, yet he is endlessly figured as though he were. Questions like “Why doesn’t Obama admit that these guys look like his son?” and “Where’s the outcry from the NAACP now?” ricochet around the media. But seriously, who on the planet would protest the arrest and prosecution of the young men who committed this crime? What exactly is being imagined here? That members of the civil rights movement would actually defend murder? Or write it off when committed by black people?

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We can argue all day about what causes people to take potshots in Oklahoma or gang-rape women in India or slash schoolchildren in China or traffic sex slaves in Belgium. Yes, yes, personal responsibility—but not racialized responsibility. Perhaps it helps to put the question of violent crime in a global context, for then it becomes clearer that across humanity, the greater or lesser incidence of such crime is linked to factors like social upheaval and dislocation, poverty, population density, availability of weapons, untreated mental illness and lack of education.

In Australia, where homicides by gunfire have diminished dramatically since strict gun control laws were enacted in 1996, Lane’s death has prompted calls for tourists to stop coming to the United States. “This is the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the NRA that even blocked background checks for people buying guns at gun shows,” one politician observed. The Australian media have not only discussed the broken humanity of the young suspects, but also foregrounded the scandalous availability of firearms here. It might be interesting if, after spending too much of the last fifty years talking in circles, we in America could see ourselves as reluctant tourists in the land of our own psyches. It might be helpful to begin shifting our discussion to the way in which all our souls are broken when we dehumanize by general habit.

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, the editors of The Nation examined race and law in the United States.

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