By Gene Lyons
When people call for a national "conversation" about race, what they really have in mind is a lecture. Sometimes President Obama is among them. So at the expense of alienating critical race theorists, some heresy: If the president wants to understand why he heard car door locks clicking as he walked down the street, he should study those two appalling homicides in Duncan, Okla. and Spokane, Wash. that Fox News is beating the drums about.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Fox, Rush Limbaugh and the rest are race-baiting. It's what they do. "Fox News Desperately Searches For The White Trayvon Martin," is how Media Matters put it. The ever-reliable Salon informed readers about "The Right's Black Crime Obsession."
Both publications laid down the liberal party line: that what Salon condescendingly called the "conservative cri de coeur" about the trio of Oklahoma teenagers who gunned down an Australian baseball player jogging through their neighborhood was essentially phony. Local police saw no racial motive. (Never mind that one of the two African-American perps posted this on Twitter: "90 (percent) of white ppl are nasty. #HATE THEM.")
Of course local cops saw no racial motive in the Trayvon Martin killing either, but hold that thought.
There's also the case of Delbert "Shorty" Belton, an 88-year-old World War II veteran mugged in Spokane by two black teenagers who stole his wallet and beat him to death. The victim's family has understandably resisted attempts to turn Belton's death into racial symbolism. No less an authority than the New York Times' Timothy Egan -- for whom I have great respect -- lamented how quickly the crime "went from an all-too-common tale of urban violence to a politicized narrative and magnet for racists."
"It is much easier to incite racial fear than to try to examine the mechanics of evil," Egan explained. "Yes, blacks commit a disproportionate amount of the homicides in this country, and are disproportionate among the victims. Is that because of their race?"
In a word, no.
Me, I'm with Mark Twain: "I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."
That said, special pleading by adepts of the Trayvon Martin cult strikes me as willful blindness. For more than a year, nearly every "mainstream" news organization in the United States portrayed young Martin's death as the racial atrocity of the century -- based largely on tendentious and erroneous reporting greatly influenced by the Martin family lawyers.
Looking back, some of it continues to amaze. Bob Somerby recently analyzed an appearance by former prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin in March 2012, as the publicity campaign to make Florida prosecutors charge George Zimmerman with murder neared its crescendo.
Suffice it to say that virtually everything Hostin told CNN viewers about the evidence was shown to be upside-down and backwards at trial. She'd gotten nearly every dispositive fact about the fatal confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin wrong. Not that it altered her opinion or anybody else's as the trial went on to its inevitable conclusion.
After the verdict, along came the professors and critical race theorists to further confuse matters. On PBS News Hour, Prof. Jelani Cobb (University of Connecticut) alleged that "the fact of the matter is, Mr. Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in the previous six years -- only for African-Americans, only for African-American men."
Sorry, professor, but The Daily Beast catalogued them. The actual number of calls involving black men was seven, two of them Trayvon Martin.
Then came Prof. Patricia Williams (Columbia University Law). Writing in The Nation, Williams objected to the racial "monsterization" of Trayvon Martin -- describing how defense lawyer Mark O'Mara "dropped a huge chunk of concrete, bigger and more jagged than a cinder block, in front of the jury box -- as though onto Zimmerman -- from a great and death-dealing height."
Would it shock you to learn that this lurid episode never happened? Watch O'Mara's closing argument on YouTube if you doubt me.
Anyway, here's my point: If we're going to have a healing conversation about race and crime, it'd help if people would quit making wild exaggerations and accusations of bad faith. The differences between Fox News and MSNBC-style racial demagoguery are largely a matter of style.
Ultimately, too, the exact motives of the Oklahoma and Spokane murderers strike me as far less significant than their extreme brutality and near-suicidal indifference to human life. It comes in all colors, God knows.
However, the statistics Timothy Egan (and President Obama) alluded to are stark: According to the Center for Disease Control, the youth homicide rate (per 100,000) is 28.8 for blacks, 7.9 for Hispanics, 2.1 for whites.
Overall, the African-American homicide rate is EIGHT TIMES greater than the national average -- an ongoing tragedy this bickering does nothing to heal.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.