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Mr. President (and Bill O’Reilly): How Did Trayvon Martin “Mess Up”?

Conservatives’ deplorable record on race has long held that discrimination is fine so long as it benefits the white and affluent. They vehemently defended discriminatory laws when whites benefitted in the pre-civil-rights era, then just as staunchly opposed (in pious tones of racial equality) the few, far more limited post-1960s affirmative action policies that did not benefit whites.

So, it’s no surprise that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and other rightists argued that armed, self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman had every right to confront, and subsequently fatally shoot, Trayvon Martin for walking through the neighborhood where they both lived. Why? Simply because Martin was a young, black teenaged stranger and therefore “statistically” suspect of criminality.

What is shocking is President Obama’s and other liberals’ repeated expression of that same racialized fear toward young black men, even though couched in tones of sympathy, caring, and indignant denunciations of racism.

Asked on last Monday’s Tonight Show about Trayvon’s shooting, President Obama replied: “You're a teenager, especially a teenage boy, you're going to mess up and you won't always have the best judgment.”

Huh? How, Mr. President, did Martin “mess up” and use bad “judgment” by peaceably walking down his Sanford, Fla., street in the evening carrying snacks for his younger siblings when he was confronted by a hostile, gun-packing, self-appointed vigilante?

Seconds later, Obama lamented that “African-American families… have sons [who] know the experience they had being followed or being viewed suspiciously.” And why is that, Mr. President? Because you, like Fox pundits, never miss a chance to remind the country (in a third contradictory comment Obama delivered in 30 seconds) that “young African-American men disproportionately have involvement in criminal activities and violence.”

In fact, Obama has told us plainly how Martin “messed up.” In campaign statements and books such as Change We Can Believe In, Obama branded today’s black male youth as “an entire generation” caught up in shootings, “violence and addiction,” and deplored “teenagers hanging around on street corners.” According to the president, Martin “messed up” by being PwYB: in public while young and black.

The Martin killing and his killer’s acquittal presented yet another critical opportunity for this president to make a clear, unequivocal declaration: None of us, black or white, old or young, want to be judged as individuals by the worst statistical trait someone can pin on our entire group. Unfortunately, the president didn't say that, nor did he point out that what sociologist William Julius Wilson called “statistical bigotry,” applied most recently to demonize Trayvon Martin, is really just traditional stereotyping combined with numerical fraud.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a scenario identical to the fatal Zimmerman-Martin confrontation, with races and ages reversed. A black teenager, armed with a gun and concerned for the safety of his neighborhood, spots a white, middle-aged man around Bill O’Reilly’s age walking down the street. 

The teenager happens to know that “statistically,” a middle-aged, white grownup is 10 to 20 times more likely than a teenaged African American or Latino to die from abusing illicit drugs—and also disproportionately likely to commit mass shootings. He knows drug abuse underlies a lot of violence, crime, family disruption, and other troubles plaguing his and other communities.

So, the neighborhood-guarding black youth confronts the white middle-aged stranger to determine whether he’s there to buy, sell, or get high on drugs, a fight ensues, and the teen fatally shoots the white grownup. Same demographic fears founded in “statistics,” same deadly result. There, of course, there the similarities end. Anyone who thinks a black youth would be acquitted under the same legal protections afforded Zimmerman is crazy.

Or, reverse the races: Imagine an armed white teenager confronts an African American around Obama’s age in his neighborhood because, statistically, middle-aged black men have disproportionately high drug abuse and homicide rates, and, after a struggle, fatally shoots the older man. Others can disagree, but my bet would be that the white teenager is going down… at least for manslaughter.

Statistical bigots—a smug class O’Reilly and Obama exemplify—brandish numbers but reason backwards. For example, a statistical bigot, pointing to Center for Disease Control figures showing a African American 17 year-old male has a murder rate around six times higher than for American men as a whole, pronounces black teenaged males as fearsome.

But what does that number actually mean? In fact, the statistic shows that 9,994 of every 10,000 African American teenaged males will not be involved in a homicide in a year’s time, compared to 9,999 men in general. The lethal danger posed by a given black youth such as Martin to a neighbor such as Zimmerman on a given evening are vanishingly low.

More emphatically, CJCJ’s study of community curfews, which overwhelmingly are aimed at cleansing the streets of black and brown teenagers, found the presence of young people in public is associated with lower, not higher, crime rates. That’s because, as analysis hundreds of curfew citations themselves showed, the vast majority of youth are law-abiding and serve to deter crime.

Of course, Obama and O’Reilly would be furious if the negative statistics of their graying demographics were exploited to deny members of their cohorts basic rights—especially to justify murdering them. They don’t have to worry; statistical bigotry is exploited solely to stigmatize powerless, feared populations. That a liberal, mixed-race president of 2013 voices essentially the same streotypes that a 1950s Alabama sheriff would about the danger of young “darkies” shows how powerful the imperative to pronounce one’s own demographic as superior remains in supposedly post-racial America.

Keywords: Mike Males, Obama, youth

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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