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Trayvon vs. Tyrone: Why Racial Stories Are a Bad Idea

Some time back, I argued that, while the Trayvon Martin story is tragic and worth studying, we were making a mistake by allowing it to dominate our news cycle for an extended period to the exclusion of so much else. I pointed out that such incidents are, by definition, anecdotal, and do not necessarily warrant treatment as the defining issue of the moment. Implicit in that argument was that hot-button issues like this can morph in unpredictable ways and push us toward more, not less, conflict.

I knew, in part from covering the aftermath of horrible interracial or inter-ethnic tragedies in Central Africa and the former Yugoslavia, that it’s a huge mistake to take any incident and turn it into a national cause—because another incident will always come along to rally those who are on the defensive about the first.

Now, unfortunately, I have been proven right, based on a different incident involving a young black man, older whites, and a horrible death. This time, however, the victim is white.

Trayvon Martin case, meet the Tyrone Woodfork case.

Taking Sides

First, a Trayvon recap:

On February 16, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old, mixed white-Hispanic, neighborhood-watch captain in a multi-ethnic, gated community –The Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, FL — shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American. Zimmerman was the sole volunteer among his neighbors to play a role in the watch program. Zimmerman is now awaiting trial for second degree murder. The core of the case is whether Zimmerman was justified in believing that he—or anyone—was in imminent danger from Martin, who was returning at the time to his father’s townhouse from an errand, and who was unarmed. The case became largely about racism and racial suspicion, as well as about so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws that provide extra legal protection for those using weapons outside their homes when they feel threatened.

Now, the other case:

On March 14, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, someone broke into the home of an elderly white couple, and viciously attacked and robbed them. Eighty-five-year-old Nancy Strait is said to have been sexually assaulted before being beaten to death, and her 90-year-old husband Bob suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, and was shot with a BB gun.

Tyrone Woodfork, 20, African American, who was found in possession of the Straits’ car, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, two counts of robbery and burglary. Police suspect he had accomplices.

The first story became an international sensation. The second story has gotten very little attention outside of Tulsa. But it is now being pushed by those frustrated with all the attention given to the Martin case, and who feel that Zimmerman is the victim of a lynch-mob mentality and being railroaded.

In both situations, a simple moral may be drawn. In the Zimmerman-Martin case, it is obvious that anyone should be able to walk down the sidewalk without fearing for his life—and that one’s skin color should not put one in peril. In the Woodfork-Strait case, it is that no one should have to live in fear that malefactors will attack them in their home.

The activists who rallied in Sanford to seek “justice for Trayvon” felt that the case should become a lightning rod for discussion of racism and gun laws that may lead to and justify avoidable homicides. But what is to stop activists in Tulsa from arguing that the Strait case should also become a lightning rod— for discussion of a fear of lawless young blacks and a logical desire to arm oneself and take whatever measures are necessary to stay safe? In truth, neither case represents a common situation—very few comparable shootings have occurred involving Neighborhood Watch volunteers, and there are relatively few home invasions overall.

Furthermore, both cases confound efforts to reduce them to racially polarizing stereotypes. Zimmerman comes from a Hispanic background, lived in a multi-ethnic community, and was hardly a KKK type. (To appreciate the importance of balance and perspective, read this Christian Science Monitor profile of George Zimmerman, which adds shades of grey to this heretofore black-and-white story.)

Woodfork, it should be noted, had a suspended sentence for a previous burglary conviction. This will surely be used as a sort of Willie Horton moment by those who believe that locking everyone up will make us safer. But the choice is not really between locking up first-time offenders forever (shades of a fascist state) and lawless anarchy. The effectiveness of new approaches to enhancing public safety, including the “focused deterrence” promoted by criminologist David Kennedy (which concentrates on convincing violent drug dealers to change their ways) has been documented.

Besides, the Tulsa case is more about crime than race. Look at this picture: the people gathered to talk about this crime with a member of the Tulsa Crime Commission, neighbors of the Straits, are white and black. In fact, of nine neighbors visible in the photo, five are black. Blacks, percentage-wise, are more often the victims of violent crimes than whites—largely because they live in poor neighborhoods, where, not surprisingly, the perpetrators, too, are black, and not surprisingly, mostly young.

But here’s another photo from that same neighborhood meeting—in this shot, all you see are white faces. Get the problem? Depending on what you see, that’s what you get.

We All Lose

The point is, you can take virtually any high-profile story and create a cause celebre to suit your own perspective, prejudices, agenda. Identifying the bad guys depends on your point of view: Racism is the problem; people of another color are the problem; guns are the culprit, guns are our salvation. On and on it goes.

But one thing is certain: these kinds of stories keep ordinary Americans at each other’s throats. And in this state of mind, we—all of us—are susceptible to manipulation by cynical political operators, who exploit inter-ethnic tensions to lure segments of the public to certain policies and candidates. In the end, the winners are those who stoke the animosities of ordinary people so as to advance their own objectives—which often result in the election of politicians whose principal missions have nothing to do with ordinary people but everything to do with the corporate funders behind them. Just ask Karl Rove. How he must be smiling over the latest political equivalent of professional wrestling.

Ultimately, though, the suspicion, desperation and fear that lead to violence and loss of life largely have their roots in the dysfunction and alienation that are byproducts of the social dynamic in this country. And much of that has to do not with race but with economic opportunity. You will see very, very few middle class African Americans breaking into people’s homes with murderous intent. Meanwhile, black, inner-city youths are regularly harassed by police officers pursuing “stop and frisk” policies; not surprisingly, young blacks make up a huge percentage of our prison population based largely on petty or victimless crimes like marijuana possession. African Americans in California are twelve times more likely to be imprisoned for possessing marijuana than whites, for which offense they can receive cruelly long sentences in overcrowded institutions that are rightly characterized as crime incubators.

The bigger stories are almost always traceable back to societal and structural issues. And these so often come down to who has the money and the power—and what they do with it. While the rich get unconscionably richer, cutbacks in the “safety net” undermine such crucial underpinnings as employment and education for people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who then lose hope and direction.

That’s the never-ending story that should be properly covered and discussed. But it isn’t. Because we’re all too busy fighting with each other over some very meager spoils.

 

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  • David

    Russ, you made a lot of points in this article but I think your main point – and correct me if I am wrong – is that news stories, other than that focus on inquiries into the wealth/power structure of our society, are essentially of secondary importance and serve, whether consciously or not, as distractions that prevent us from finding out what is really going on.  

    Now, if you’ve read your Chomsky (and I know you have), you know that news organizations have a built-in incentive to cover stories that are unthreatening to the power structure.  That incentive (as you know too well) is advertising revenue, which is generated necessarily by pandering to those with cash to spend.  

    You actually seem to take it a step further, though, arguing that stories are not merely avoided because they threaten the power structure, but that they are actively chosen in order to serve it.  

    Your analysis and that of Chomsky focus particularly upon those in charge of the media.    The assumption in both cases seems to be that most Americans just eat up whatever is given to them, like pigs at the trough.  The Media “makes” stories that it likes “big”, while keeping stories it does not like “small.”

    But consider this: suppose the stories of Trayvon Martin and Tyrone Woodfork became “big”, not just because they were diversions from the truth about the power structure, but also because they are accessible to ordinary Americans.  Put political expediency aside for a second: these stories are intrinsically interesting to average people and it is their accessibility that, in large part, is the cause of the audience embracing what the media has chosen to give it.  

    Here’s my point.  Just as most people find the above stories interesting, so too do they find stories tending to prove the CIA’s complicity in the JFK assassination, for example, to be disturbing and troubling.  Such stories are intensely threatening to people who have constructed a worldview, and who simply have too much else to worry about besides dealing with the terrifying fact that their entire worldview is a lie.  

    What I’m saying here, Russ, is that yes, the media/power structure is to blame.  But the other culprit is the audience, or maybe even human nature.  

    • CD67

       A very good point David. I agree with you absolutely. But we also have to consider how the media/power structure is aware of that specific trait of our nature and uses it to its ends. It is a fact that human nature will generally make us go for the sensationalism of these particular cases and others like them, but I think we are mostly being played here…

      The media, in that sense, carries a heavier responsibility than its audience in that regard I would say.

      • David

        Perhaps.  However, I tend to believe that many of those in the mainstream media are just as scared to confront the truth as are those ordinary Americans in the audience.  I think this fear of the truth runs deep.  and is why Rachel Maddow (sorry Rachel) has sold more books than Russ Baker.  His book is just way too threatening. 

        By way of example: I bought my mom, an avid reader, a copy of Book of Secrets.  She’s a fairly open minded person (liberal democrat, recycles, listens to NPR etc.) but she couldn’t get through it.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t put it down.  When I asked her about it, she didn’t contest the truthfulness of those facts cited in the book.  I just think she didn’t want to deal with the issues raised. 

        • Anonymous

           Uh, wtf is “Book of Secrets”?  Sounds naughty…

        • Russ Baker

           I believe Scott was referring to my book, “Family of Secrets.” And whether or not it is naughty, the people in it certainly are! ;-)

        • Russ Baker

           I believe Scott was referring to my book, “Family of Secrets.” And whether or not it is naughty, the people in it certainly are! ;-)

  • Rout

    Good article, but you gloss over the details.

    From all reports, The Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, FL, has no official neighborhood watch group. Zimmerman, at the time, was a self-appointed captain, a lone ranger.

    The case became what it is now because of perceived racial bias by the cops. They failed woefully. A drug test on the victim, rather than on Zimmerman? Seriously! The scene was not even treated as a crime scene.

    Imagine if Zimmerman was the dead guy when the cops arrived, and Martin explained that he feared for his life because of whatever reason. He would have been arrested and put in jail.

    It is solely because the cops believed Zimmerman’s story without even an investigation that made the case what it is.

    The Tulsa, Oklahoma case is not even comparable. A guy committed a crime and was arrested. End of story. You do not see blacks in his community saying he was justified.

    • Russ Baker

       Wow. This guy TOTALLY misses the point–doesnt seem to have even read the article. Or the referenced preceding one.

    • Nat

       Excellent rebuttal! Rout, you hit the nail on the head. Two totally different cases. Russ unfortunately fell into the trap of equating two different situations because of the racial categorization of the people involved. Russ has a great website and reporting, but on this one, he missed the mark.

      Probably doing an interview with someone who has studied and worked on these issues of race in the USA would have served you better this time Mr. Baker! Be that as it may, keep up the good work. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling the need to comment on everything just because it is hot in the news cycle now.

  • i0 vae

    And there are other cases of white cops killing blacks that don’t get hyped like Trayvon. The reason, they lack the necessary ingredients. I suspect a group of political operatives in collusion with media vetted through many cases – they are legion around the country – and selected this one because: A. the death of a black youth incites black rage on the one hand and white guilt on the other. B. Zimmerman will likely be acquitted of the charges – 2nd degree murder was perhaps too harsh, and manslaughter more appropriate. When this happens, they are counting on riots. Then Obama will be the peace-maker. This is his re-election campaign strategy – or one part of it. The other part is stoking war between the sexes, which Rush Limbaugh has been helping out very nicely.

  • Pingback: Trayvon vs. Tyrone: Why Racial Stories Are a Bad Idea : Deadline Live With Jack Blood

  • Morocco Bama

    If Zimmerman is a “White Hispanic” then Obama is not an “African-American.” Also, when can we stop using the term “African-American”? It’s divisive, imo, and it’s high time for it to be discarded. I’m third generation Polish and Irish and I’m not referred to as “Polish-American” or “Irish-American.”

    I didn’t initially assume Zimmerman shot Martin because Martin was black, and I do not assume that Tyrone and his accomplices did what they did because the Strait’s were white. In the former case, unless there are facts to the contrary, it appears Zimmerman feared for his life after being attacked, and in the latter case, it appears the Strait’s were chosen because they were elderly and thus vulnerable to attack, or it could have just been random. I see no reason to believe it was racially motivated.

    So, why can’t ideologues see it that way, instead of exploiting rare and inappropriate cases? I think we know the answer.  

    • Nat

       Africans can choose to call ourselves whatever we wish. Who cares what you call or don’t call yourself. I don’t care about your guilt being evoked about the alleged divisiveness of the term African-American.  No one says that when we refer to people as Asian-Americans.  Should we just call them yellow to make you feel better? (a rhetorical question) This piece avoids the issue. White people should not write about race issues, because whites have been the beneficiary of the race-construct, so they have a stake in trying to downplay its heinousness.

      • Morocco Bama

         I have no guilt whatsoever, and you are just an American, whether you like it, or not. I will refer to you as an American, not an African-American. I don’t refer to anyone as Asian-American either, so your analogy fails. Yes, racism is heinous, and your racism is showing my fellow American who wants to think they’re somehow separate and apart and keep it that way.

        • Nat

          No, my analogy does not “fail” simply because you refuse to accept it. People like you insist on trying to define other people in a way that accords and supports your own self-serving false consciousness. This is indicated in your comment “…you’re just an American, whether you like it or not.” This sounds eerily similar to the manner in which US imperialism demands their victims to accept whatever category they choose to impose, and none of the victims have any choice to assert their own identity. Well I am going to keep my right of self-definition.
           
          Secondly, I am not an American, I am a nominal United States citizen, there is a difference, and this supports my point. The term American has been co-opted to refer to a small group of people in the western hemisphere.
           
          Canadians, Bolivians, and Mexicans are Americans because their nations are on the continent, but the fact remains that ALL BUT the people of the indigenous nations and Africans are immigrants in the modern sense. Indigenous land was stolen by Europeans. Africans were kidnapped and forced to work years for nothing. Europeans flooded the shores due to the propaganda about “streets paved with gold” and all European illegals intended on capitalizing on these two historical crimes, (slavery & land grabs) for which reparations have yet to be made.
           
          Lastly, since when is it “racist” to be separate? Are Japanese racists because they want their own country and do not want to become the 51st US state? That charge is simple ludicrous and you should learn what racism/white supremacy actually is before disrespectfully defining me, and accusing Africans in America of being racist for demanding the return of our self-determination and autonomy. Don’t ask us to integrate into a burning house. I don’t want to be included in a hostile environment where I am under suspicion and a de facto 2nd class human being.
           
          If you don’t like the term African-American, then refer to us as African until we re-discover the national identity which was stolen from us.
           

        • Morocco Bama

          Your identity is American whether you like it or not. You are not any more African than I am African. Your only distinction, as is mine, is sub-cultural behavior, and that overlaps with overall American culture. Either way, your message doesn’t seem to be working. The Liberians who live behind me are better Americans than me….that’s how far they’ve come in a few short years. They know the formula and have applied it. The only benefit your thinking can afford them is special treatment due to protected status, and being opportunists as most people are, they will gladly take what that gravy train will provide. Ironically, the Liberians behind us can rightly claim that they’re African since they were born and raised there and are of the culture, but they’re not waving their flag and wearing their identity badge like you. Why is that, do you think?

        • ND52′, Oklahoma City

          You’re free to move back to your “homeland” anytime you so choose @184beeb01d67bd44d2e047f18b007af5:disqus .

          Nobody is detaining you here as a slave no matter what nonsense you’d have us believe.

      • jc

         I don’t use the term african american because most of the time I can’t say for sure that the person is African or American. Also there are  is no race that has not commited heinous acts against another race or peoples including their own race. Do you really think that all slave were dragged out of Africa by whites…? Is it possible competing tribes sold each other out for next to nothing?

        A controversial take on this race issue might say black people are to some extent embarrassed that their ancestors were enslaved. Especially so because they know that it couldn’t go down like today and every incident no matter how small or big is another chance to prove  this point.

  • http://zach.status.net/ zcopley

    Great piece, Russ.

  • Pingback: Why Racial Stories Are A Bad Idea (an interesting take) « 3lefts2babylon

  • Pingback: Trayvon Vs. Tyrone: Why Racial Stories Are A Bad Idea

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pad-Dar/100002515504977 Pad Dar

    I dont agree.  Are whites in America supposed to just shut up?
    Never-mind Zimmerman/Martin.
    Just about everyone I know has been a victim of a race-crime and the MSM says ZERO.
    Someone has to cover these atrocities since you, also, will not.
    Thanks for NOTHING
     

    • Scott

      Is this a joke? Whowhatwhy.com is an alternative media source, that is trying to cover stories that the mainstream media does not cover.  No one is forcing you to turn to this site for info on Trayvon Martin and  the mainstream media has that one covered.

      Also, everyone you know has been a victim of a race-crime? Really? Either you know a very small number of people or you live in a really hellish community.  Sorry for you either way. 

    • Scott

      Is this a joke? Whowhatwhy.com is an alternative media source, that is trying to cover stories that the mainstream media does not cover.  No one is forcing you to turn to this site for info on Trayvon Martin and  the mainstream media has that one covered.

      Also, everyone you know has been a victim of a race-crime? Really? Either you know a very small number of people or you live in a really hellish community.  Sorry for you either way. 

    • Scott

      Is this a joke? Whowhatwhy.com is an alternative media source, that is trying to cover stories that the mainstream media does not cover.  No one is forcing you to turn to this site for info on Trayvon Martin and  the mainstream media has that one covered.

      Also, everyone you know has been a victim of a race-crime? Really? Either you know a very small number of people or you live in a really hellish community.  Sorry for you either way. 

      • David

        Now that I think about it, what the heck is a “race-crime”?

  • Ed Johnson

    Russ I generally value your insights greatly across the board but this analysis strikes me as faulty. Horrific violent crimes happen all the time perpetrated by people–mostly men–of all races. The reason why the so-called black community was so inflamed over Trayvon Martin was not because the murder itself but because Zimmerman was not arrested. Seen in this light, the outcry was a necessary check (it did the trick, Zimmerman was arrested) against a racial blind spot in a local jury system. I really don’t see how the two cases are similar. 

    • Ed Johnson

       I meant to write “local judicial system.”

  • Tim

    Great article. I could not have expressed my own feelings and emotions any better. Thanks- Tim

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1732961488 Michelle Mason Cagle

    I am a teacher in Tulsa and Tyrone was one of my students when he was in 2nd grade. If someone had told me when he was in my classroom that Tyrone would commit the horrible crimes that he did I wouldn’t have believed them. It’s a shame that noone in his family taught him right from wrong. By the way-Tyrone is also part Native American-not that it makes a difference.

  • Yaknows

    The two incidents have nothing to do with one another, Trayvon
    Martin case is about getting  justice which many African Americans don’t get when they are harmed by white men. Woodfork will get his just punishment for killing a white person if he is found guilty which is the case 99.9% of the time.

  • Yescolleen

    Something important evolved out of the Trayvon Martin case that has transcended an anecdotal, hot button issue, as you characterize the case.   All eyes focused on the facts of the Trayvon Martin case and one of those facts involved the Stand Your Ground law in Florida and other states.  People became educated on the dangers of this law.  
    But the story then transcended higher.   The media began to focus on the fact that the right wing corporate Koch Brothers organization ALEC  was instrumental in DRAFTING  and getting the Stand Your Ground laws passed.  And then the media’s attention turned to ALEC’s participation in providing draft legislation and lobbying for passage of so many other pro-corporate laws in relating to unions, prisons, etc.   The trickle up effect, if you will, of the Trayvon Martin case is that now dozens of corporations and non-profits affiliated with ALEC have quit their relationship with it and this has weakened ALEC’s standing and power within the body politic.  This is hardly anecdotal.  

  • Ron

    Where were all these protesters, when O J Simpson, was found not guilty of murdering two white people? I’ll tell you, they were all partying in the streets. When blacks murder whites, you don’t here much about it. If anybody is raciest, its the blacks in this country.

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