In Kansas City, Missouri, a 13-year-old East High School student was walking home after the end of his daily classes when he was grabbed by two older teens just as he reached his front porch. They pinned his arms behind his back, poured gasoline on him, and set him on fire. The victim of the attack was rushed to an emergency room, where he was treated and released. Doctors fear possible damage to his lungs and eyes, but outside of losing his eyebrows and some hair, he only suffered first degree burns.
The boy is white; his attackers were black. They allegedly said, as they were lighting him aflame, “You get what you deserve, white boy.”
This frightening incident occurred on March 2. I only recently learned of it, because the news media didn’t treat it as a national story. Though the boy’s attackers have not been found, no activists are demanding that the police chief resign. There have been no marches or protests, and students aren’t walking out of Kansas City schools. Nobody, as far as I can determine, has claimed that this is just the tip of a lurking race iceberg, and that it shows the racial hate of blacks toward whites that is hidden by the media and the culture. Most of all, the President of the United States did not say , just to give a wild, hypothetical example…
“Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.
“So I’m glad that not only is the Justice Department looking into it, I understand now that the governor of the state of Florida has formed a task force to investigate what’s taking place. I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.
“But my main message is to the parents of this young man. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
Now, a lot of conservative bloggers and other commentators are asking why the Kansas City incident has been pigeon-holed as a local news story of no great significance, while the story of Trayvon Martin’s shooting by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain is the subject of editorials, essays, debates and blog posts, and has become a political controversy. (It would be nice, as well as helpful, if some prominent non-conservatives had the integrity, courage and the objectivity to ask the same questions. It would also be nice if i-Pads grew on trees.) There are obvious differences in the two stories that could be part of the answer: the Kansas City boy didn’t die, and wasn’t even seriously injured; guns weren’t involved; there was no 911 call to play, and the episode raised no questions about the role of a dangerously broad Florida law that has national advocates. Still, the victim in Kansas City was a child; the fact that he wasn’t killed is just luck, no arrest has been made, and while it is still undetermined whether Martin’s death was a hate crime (or even a crime at all), the Missouri attack certainly looks like one. (I could raise my favorite issue of why setting a child on fire for other reasons makes the act less despicable than doing it because of his race, but never mind.) I think the disparity between the prominence and national impact of the two stories cannot be justified by the facts of the two cases alone.
It is, I am quite sure,partially explained by confirmation bias…by the media, by politicians, and by civil rights activists. They believe, not without evidence, that innocent black men are endangered because of racial fears and bias (and the media also doesn’t like guns), so they interpreted the Martin tragedy as a story with larger social and political significance. For similar reasons, probably subconsciously (but you never know), they chose not to pay attention to the Kansas City burning, because they feared that it would exacerbate those fears and biases, and because, thanks to confirmation bias, they really believe that a black-on-white hate crime is just an aberration, with no larger significance at all. And it might be, though without talking about it, investigating it, and “taking it with the seriousness it deserves,” we’ll never find out, will we?
Of course, George Zimmerman, who shot Martin, could also be an aberration. His act, however, also advances the political agenda of many of the people reporting, publicizing, condemning and protesting the incident. What happened in Kansas City does not.
I don’t usually like playing this game, but the suspicion is a reasonable one that if the Kansas City boy had been black and his assailants white, this would have been a national story. I also suspect that if the Kansas City attack had occurred after Martin’s death was widely reported (Martin was actually killed about a week before the burning, but the media didn’t latch on to it for a couple weeks) the media would have had to report it differently.
Nonetheless, I would probably make the call that the Florida story holds more national significance than the burned student if I were a news editor. The fact that the death seems to have arisen out of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law tips the scales. The problem is that while the differences are not so great in the abstract, that simple choice—one story is headline stuff, the other, purely local—causes the two episodes to have national impact grossly disproportionate to the actual difference in their facts and news value. The public is bombarded with words and thoughts about one, and doesn’t learn about the other at all. Now hindsight bias comes into play. Conservatives discover the earlier story, and challenge the decision not to publicize it as media bias, given how the Martin shooting was treated. That’s unfair, but it doesn’t seem unfair—not when commentators are pointing to Martin’s death as symptomatic of a national problem. “So black kids target an innocent white kid for burning, and that’s nothing, but a kid in a hoodie shot by a hysterical Hispanic with a gun becomes the new Emmett Till?”
There are many more stories on the web comparing Martin to Till than there are stories about any aspect of the Kansas City incident. That’s unconscionable, exploitive, irresponsible, and misleading.
Then, from sufficient reasons to make one story a subject of national coverage and treat the other as local, the featured story takes on wildly inflated significance–before it is even determined exactly what happened in Florida. This sucks in our ever-eager-to-be-sucked-in President whose statement, read in the context of the Kansas City story that he may not even know about, gives ammunition to those with questionable motives, but also those with legitimate ones. So people are asking:
“Why is Obama concerned for the black parents of slain son in what may not be a racial incident, but not concerned for parents of a burned child, in what definitely was a racial incident? Why is the Justice Department investigating one and not the other? Is it because the victim in Florida looked like Obama, or could have been his son, while the attackers in Kansas City might have looked like him, and the victim couldn’t have been his son? Why is he putting pressure on Florida law enforcement officials to make an arrest, when even more time has gone by in the Kansas City incident, and there have been no arrests either? Does Obama think that arresting white attackers should be a higher priority than arresting black ones? Why? I thought this man had promised to be President of all the people, and be equally dedicated to all children, all parents, and all races?
Some—though not all—of these questions are unfair, and I sympathize with the dilemma faced by our first African-American President whenever a national controversy arises over race. He quite literally can’t win: black activists will take his silence as a betrayal to his most loyal supporters, yet if he makes the kind of comment, admittedly restrained, that he did this week, opponents will accuse him of aggravating racial tensions and failing his own standard of objectivity. Yes, I sympathize…but he has the job he sought and won, and its up to him to navigate its complexities.
That is a primary reason why it is foolish and irresponsible for him to comment on on such events in general, and the Trayvon Martin shooting in particular.