Wall Street Journal columnist Gerard Baker says that the Ahmaud Arbery story is once again teaching us a lesson about what we can and cannot say about race and crime in America. It’s behind the paywall, the column, but here is an excerpt:
You probably haven’t heard of Paul and Lidia Marino. The couple, 86 and 85 years old, were shot dead a week ago while visiting a veterans’ cemetery in Bear, Del., where their son, who died in
2017, is buried. The authorities have so far been unable to establish a motive for the killing, but
they identified a suspect, Sheldon Francis, a 29-year-old black man, later found dead after an
exchange of fire with the police.
As far as I can tell, from news databases and online searches, other than local newspapers and
TV, and a brief story by the New York Post, the death of the Marinos, who were white, has gone
as unremarked as their lives. Mr. Arbery’s death, by contrast, has become one of those crimes
that some who control our public discourse have decided is a “teachable moment.”
Millions of words have been devoted to exploring and explaining the moral of the killing. It has
been widely described as a “lynching.” We have been reminded once again of the prevalence of
unequal and violent treatment of minorities. We’ve been told once again that the killing reflects
the daily reality of life in America for young blacks. This teaching moment has turned into a
continuous, ubiquitous lecture series on the unalterably racist nature of America.
We don’t yet know the full facts behind either of these killings. Mr. Arbery’s certainly looked
ugly, and whatever his killers and some neighbors allege he may have been doing on that street
on a sunny afternoon, he clearly did not deserve to be gunned down. We will learn no doubt
soon whether his killers did indeed have racist motives.
Perhaps, meanwhile, the murder of the Marinos was a random act of violence, a deranged killer,
a robbery that savagely escalated. But whatever the motive, I’d be willing to wager a small
fortune that we won’t hear much more about it.
Baker goes on to say that the most recent Justice Department figures (2018) show that there are more than twice as many hate crimes perpetrated against blacks as anti-white hate crimes. “But if you adjust the figures for the relative size of each group in the total U.S. population,” he writes, “they show that blacks are 50% overrepresented among perpetrators of hate crimes, while whites are about 25% underrepresented.”
The point Baker makes is that this is about constructing a narrative. Or to be more precise, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery — which Baker acknowledges was a horrible thing — both resonates with a pre-existing narrative dominant in the media, and provides another opportunity to reinforce that narrative. This is not “whataboutism” on Baker’s part. It is a perfectly reasonable questioning of the way we talk about hate crimes in our media. He says no fair person can deny that racism exists, but (he says) the systematic distortion of facts, the choice of the stories we tell (and those we don’t), and “the routine exclusion of countervailing evidence” against the preferred conclusion — all of these things make it harder to talk about racism.
Musa al-Gharbi, a Columbia sociologist, has a really interesting set of reflections about who gets to define “racism.” He writes that it’s great that racism has become so stigmatized in our society. Yet:
However, as a function of the increased social capital at stake when accusations of racism are made, and the diminishing opportunities to leverage that capital by “calling out” obvious cases of racism – the sphere of what counts as “racist” has been ever-expanding – to the point where it is now possible to qualify as “racist” on the basis of things like microaggressions and implicit attitudes.
One particularly unfortunate aspect of this concept creep – justified under the auspices of empowering people of color – is that relatively well-off, highly-educated, liberal whites tend to be among the most zealous in identifying and prosecuting these new forms of “racism.”
Data show that liberal, educated white people are much more likely to see racism in everyday actions than are black and Hispanic people. Al-Gharbi says that white elites are so eager to express their anti-racism that they don’t actually listen to black and Hispanic people. More:
White elites —who play an outsized role in defining racism in academia, the media, and the broader culture — instead seem to define ‘racism’ in ways that are congenial to their own preferences and priorities. Rather than actually dismantling white supremacy or meaningfully empowering people of color, efforts often seem to be oriented towards consolidating social and cultural capital in the hands of the ‘good’ whites. Charges of “racism,” for instance, are primarily deployed against the political opponents of upwardly-mobile, highly-educated progressive white people. Even to the point of branding prominent black or brown dissenters as race-traitors (despite the reality that, on average, blacks and Hispanics tend to be significantly more socially conservative and religious than whites).
And this, al-Gharbi says, drives some white people to vote for candidates like Donald Trump. Moreover, he says, research data show that there is no discernible negative effect from microaggressions, but there are measurable negative effects from making people of color hypersensitive to racism — that is, making them anxious that racism is getting ready to jump out and attack them at any second. And, research shows that the main effect of diversity training is to increase racial resentment.
Al-Gharbi says that those doing antiracism work need to change their ways. As it stands now, it only serves as a status marker. Performative antiracism, according to al-Gharbi, is often about high-status whites reinforcing their own power and privilege by putting low-status whites in their places.
This has a lot to do with the point Gerard Baker makes about reporting on hate crimes. Baker’s piece made me think about something I wrote back in 2002 about Mary Stachowicz. Ever heard of her? Of course you haven’t. She was a middle-aged Polish Catholic woman in Chicago who asked her neighbor, a 19-year-old gay man, why he preferred men to women. The man beat and tortured her to death, then shoved her body into a crawlspace. It was a hate crime. Barely anyone noticed. As I wrote then:
Yet the same American media that made Matthew Shepard a celebrated cause have said very little about Mary Stachowicz just as they said very little about Jesse Dirkhising, the 13-year-old boy raped, tortured and strangled by homosexuals in 1999.
Andrew Sullivan, probably the most articulate gay-rights advocate in journalism, wrote in a 2001 New Republic article:
“In the month after Shepard’s murder, Nexis recorded 3,007 stories about his death. In the month after Dirkhising’s murder, Nexis recorded 46 stories about his. In all of last year, only one article about Dirkhising appeared in a major mainstream newspaper. The Boston Globe, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ignored the incident completely. In the same period, the New York Times published 45 stories about Shepard, and The Washington Post published 28. The discrepancy isn’t just real. It’s staggering.”
Dirkhising’s and Stachowicz’s deaths violated the narrative. So too, one surmises, will the deaths of Paul and Lidia Marino if it emerges that the black man who executed them (and then killed himself) was motivated by racial hatred.
Though we could learn more through the investigation, everything we know about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery indicates that it was a racially motivated homicide, and that the local DA ran interference to protect the men who shot Arbery. If what seems to be true turns out to be accurate, then this is real outrage. Attention must be paid (seriously), and wrongdoers punished. Protesters are right to demand justice.
But the media’s longstanding habit of finding some victims of violent hate crimes more worthy of attention than others makes people skeptical and even resentful of the narrative. And again, it’s not whataboutism to point out this chronic flaw in the way the media construe stories having to do with racism and violence in America.
UPDATE: I knew this would be a thing in the comments section, and sure enough it was. Let me say a second time: I think what happened to Arbery, and the local DA’s attempt to make it go away, was an outrage, and that the protests are just. Some of y’all need to understand that several things can be true at the same time.