The continuing right-wing effort to make a hero out of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson, may not turn out so well, if the past is any guide. Remember Cliven Bundy? Donald Sterling? George Zimmerman?
Just because liberals don’t like someone doesn’t mean he should automatically be a hero to conservatives. There was a point when even the National Review seemed to recognize this — editor Rich Lowry once wrote a column titled “Al Sharpton Is Right,” about the need for charges to be filed against George Zimmerman, when Florida officials were dragging their heels.
But that time is long gone, apparently. And as a result, the right seems well on its way to aligning with the reemergence of a 21st century form of lynching, even while furiously insisting that they are totally post-racial. Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling — the more readily and thoroughly renounced — didn’t kill anyone, of course. But Zimmerman and Wilson both did, and both, to varying degrees, acted under color of law, which is precisely how plain old-fashioned lynching used to work, in a shadow realm that would not have allowed the killing of whites (except, of course, for "race traitors" who allied with blacks).
It didn’t take long for people to start rallying to Darren Wilson’s defense. In less than a week, several hundred thousand dollars had been raised on his behalf — with a healthy smattering of hateful racist messages in support, such as “I would have donated double this amount, but you missed his accomplice” — and Fox News had run a flood of false, unsourced stories, claiming that Wilson’s eye socket had been broken, implicitly “proving” that he had been in a heroic struggle for his life.
It was the overnight creation of what Joan Walsh called “a thriving franchise of the nation’s booming white grievance industry.” In contrast, things moved more slowly when it came to making George Zimmerman a hero. Fox News and most of the rest of the right virtually ignored Trayvon Martin’s killing for months, and even when they suddenly snapped to, it took a while for them to adopt Zimmerman as one of their own. Now, in contrast, it’s all happening at warp speed.
Two decades ago, the acquittal of the officers who beat up Rodney King touched off the most widespread urban riot in a generation, but there was nothing similar in that coverage to the way that first Zimmerman, and now, apparently, Wilson are being treated as heroic figures. Given the role right-wing media plays in hero creation, it was only natural to turn to Media Matters for some perspective, and senior fellow Eric Boehlert made several points to Salon, to describe how we got here.
First, Boehlert reminded us, today's conservative media were unlike anything in existence in 1992; second, that it was Obama's relatively benign comments that led conservatives to politicize the killing of Trayvon Martin; and third, that conservative media's 16-month involvement in smearing Trayvon Martin and defending George Zimmerman had created a new narrative niche, which was now readily filled with similar attacks on Michael Brown and defense of Darren Wilson. (Though Boehlert was describing the broad sweep of developments, one Media Matters blog post highlighted Geraldo Rivera’s virtually identical pattern of victim-blaming in both cases.)
Finally, more broadly, Boehlert noted that white victimization — and thus rallying around victim/heroes — is the cornerstone of Fox News’ programming, even as it's embraced the ideology that racism has been eradicated (never mind the actual facts), and concluded that the real racists are those who still talk about race.
“We have a right-wing media that's very different from the Clinton era right-wing media, in which, everything has to be partisan,” Boehlert told Salon. If today’s media had been around back then, he said, “The L.A. riots would've been depicted as partisan. It would've been a left-right thing. The cops would've been the good guys no matter what; people — obviously the looters and rioters are separate — but anyone who raised questions about the beating would've been agitators, probably would've been ACORN or were communists or things like that.”
Fast forwarding to the Obama era, Boehlert continued, “You’ve got a right-wing media that I think kind of tipped its hand with the Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case. For the first few weeks there was very little coverage, very little passion on Fox News or the right-wing blogs about that story.” Similar points were made at the time by Judd Legum at Think Progress, Simon Owens at the Moderate Voice, and Boehlert himself at Media Matters.
“Rich Lowry actually wrote a piece saying Al Sharpton was right, someone should be indicted for that murder,” Boehlert continued — a point we’ll return to in a moment. “Then Obama addressed it, and once Obama enters the conversation about race, you know, they went from zero to a hundred ... they decided that the story was partisan, and that supporting Trayvon Martin was the Democratic position, supporting the guy who killed an unarmed teen was the Republican conservative position, and so they set up the markers, and went for it. And the way they did that was they smeared a dead teenager for 16 months until Zimmerman's acquittal.”
To understand the process of shaping the polarized narrative, it’s helpful to go back to the moment before, to Lowry’s Sharpton column. It was an odd mix of name-calling and common sense. Al Sharpton was a “longtime provocateur" and a “perpetually aggrieved, shamelessly exploitative publicity hound,” but like a stopped clock, “he occasionally will be right,” and this is one of those occasions, Lowry argued. Zimmerman, he said, should be arrested and tried:
We may never know what exactly happened in the altercation. We do know this: Through stupendous errors in judgment, Zimmerman brought about an utterly unnecessary confrontation and then — in the most favorable interpretation of the facts for him — shot Martin when he began to lose a fistfight to him.
Lowry took note of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, but blithely downplayed the complexities of how it actually works in practice (“It is one of the reasons that the police didn’t press charges against Zimmerman,” he admitted) and invoked its pure-as-the-driven-snow transcendent spirit:
But the law is not meant to be a warrant for aggressive vigilantism. It was Martin, chased by a stranger who wasn’t an officer of the law, who had more reason to feel threatened and “stand his ground” than Zimmerman.
The jumbled mix of attitudes displayed in this piece might even be stable in some political environments — but not ours. As Alex Pareene noted shortly afterward ("Why Rush Limbaugh and the Right Turned On Trayvon Martin"), the same day Lowry's column appeared everything changed:
On March 23, two things happened: Buffoon Geraldo Rivera made his infamous remarks on the role Martin’s style of dress played in his death — a dumb point dumbly made — and President Obama told the press: “My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
It was basically on this day that everything went to hell. The story of an unarmed teenager shot dead while walking home and a police force that decided that didn’t constitute a crime suddenly became a partisan issue with numerous points of contention.
Just to be clear, what Obama said was "totally innocuous," as libertarian-leaning commentator Josh Barro noted at the time (“Trayvon Martin and the Right's Race Problem”). Obama was responding to a press conference question, and Barro saw the right’s reaction as troubling. He cited the examples of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, then said:
The claim running through these objections is that black Americans cannot have any special concerns in need of airing. Many of the issues raised in the Trayvon Martin case—was Trayvon Martin singled out for suspicion because he was black? Did race influence the Sanford police’s handling of the case? What is the burden of profiling on young black men?—are therefore off limits.
Barro went on to say that “Conservatives, almost universally, feel like they get a bad rap on race,” that they “catch heat” when they make a wide range of arguments that Barro clearly feels have some merit. But then he said:
Why do conservatives catch such heat? It’s probably because there is still so much racism on the Right to go alongside valid arguments on issues relating to race and ethnicity. Conservatives so often get unfairly pounded on race because, so often, conservatives get fairly pounded on race.
And to clarify what he had in mind, Barro went on to the topic of birtherism, about which he concluded:
Republican rejections of Birtherism tend to focus on the issue being “a distraction,” as RNC Chairman Reince Preibus puts it, rather than pointedly noting that it is a nutty, racist conspiracy theory.
There has been a clear strategic calculation here among Republican elites. Better to leverage or at least accept the racism of much of the Republican base than try to clean it up.
Barro still seems to identify as a Republican, so that’s going pretty far. But almost 50 years after Nixon first launched his “Southern Strategy,” it’s a bit late to start worrying. More to the point, given the extent of GOP birtherism, sometimes it feels like if Republican elites cleaned up the racism in their base, they wouldn’t have a base at all.
Their only recourse is to insist that it’s not really racism, because folks like Al Sharpton and Barack Obama are the “real racists” — you know, folks who notice race and say something about it.
This was a point made by Kevin Drum the next day (“The Conservative Agenda in the Trayvon Martin Case”). Drum first noted that “A week ago, the worst I could say about right-wing reaction to the Martin case was that conservatives were studiously ignoring it,” but that things had suddenly changed. It wasn’t surprising that conservatives had been silent, he noted, as there was no obvious conservative principle at stake in the shooting of Trayvon Martin:
There's no special conservative principle at stake that says neighborhood watch captains should be able to shoot anyone who looks suspicious. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says local police forces should barely even pretend to investigate the circumstances of a shooting. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says young black men shouldn't wear hoodies.
And yet, he noted “as Dave Weigel points out today, the conservative media is now defending the shooter, George Zimmerman, with an almost messianic zeal,” most notably working itself up into a frenzy over a faked — even debunked — photograph of Trayvon as gangsta. So, clearly there must be some principle at stake, but what is it? Drum then quotes from an L.A. Times Op-Ed by Jonah Goldberg, explaining that we shouldn't care about Martin’s death because it was “a statistical outlier” — more blacks are killed by blacks than by any other race. And this brings Drum an epiphany:
Quite so. And that, it turns out, is the conservative principle that's actually at stake here: convincing us all that traditional racism no longer really exists (just in "pockets," says Goldberg) and that it's whites who are the real racial victims in today's America.
Alex Pareene’s piece, mentioned above, had a more elaborate analysis, citing four reasons that Martin’s killing had become a left-right issue: 1) Movement conservatism’s denial of racism (corollary: “accusations of racism are the new racism, and said accusations are invariably politically motivated”). 2) President Obama is extremely polarizing. 3) The killing was already political, given the role of Florida’s “stand your ground” law. (“Part of the frantic defense of Zimmerman is an attempt to ensure that liberals never, ever go back to the gun control advocacy they essentially gave up on after the 1990s.”) 4) Racism. The plain ole gut-level kind (“the sincere belief that if a black kid got shot, he probably had it coming”).
Of course, you don’t have to dig too deeply into (2) and (3) to find racism there as well. But the story here only begins with recognizing the presence of racism; it’s much more about how racism changes, adapts, morphs, interacts with other issues and concerns, and, in the end, continues the age-old tradition of justifying the extra-legal execution of arbitrary victims "who just happen to be black."
An example from now-distant history may be helpful here. During slavery, it was commonly propounded that the whites were both smarter and stronger than blacks. There were even faux concerns that if slavery were abolished, the black race would die out, unable to survive on its own. Once slavery ended, however, things changed. The "happy docile slave stereotype" (there were always multiple variants) was replaced by the predator/rapist, whose purported presence served to justify wave upon wave of lynching epidemics.
What these examples show is how fluid racist ideologies can be under pressure, and yet still fulfill their same basic function of justifying and naturalizing racially stratified outcomes. The book "Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression" explains how stratified societies maintain themselves with a mixture of hierarchy-enhancing and hierarchy-attenuating ideas, values and “legitimating myths,” which can vary over time, but still continued to produce stratified outcomes provided newer legitimating myths emerge to support hierarchy, as the older ones fall out of favor.
In America as a whole, perhaps the most useful framework for understanding this process in the so-called post-civil rights era is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s concept of “colorblind racism,” as explained in his 2003 book, "Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States." While the idea of a “colorblind” social order was, in the 19th century, a relatively radical, emancipatory idea, more recently the notion has been turned upside down, with the claim that we are already colorblind, except, perhaps, for those who still see racial injustices. The concept of “colorblind racism” neatly captures what’s involved in this shell game.
"The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information," Bonilla-Silva explained, and he identified four such frames at the heart of colorblind racism: 1) Abstract Liberalism, using ideas associated with political liberalism (such as "equal opportunity," the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (choice, individualism) — in an abstract manner to explain racial matters. 2) Naturalization (“That’s just how things are.”) 3) Cultural Racism (arguments like "Mexicans don’t put much emphasis on education" or "Blacks have too many babies" to explain the condition of minorities.) 4) Minimization of Racism, which simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses persistent racism ("It's better now than in the past" or "There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there).
With this framework as background, it’s not hard to understand the evolution of even more pernicious extremist variants in the right-wing media, which Boehlert sketched out. It began with Andrew Breitbart and his website announcing that “basically racism had been eradicated, and that anyone who talked about the topic was therefore a racist,” especially “civil rights activists and civil libertarians … because by raising questions, or talking about it, or discussing it, they were trying to rip the country apart, because the country is already solved racism.”
Thus, the allegation is that simply talking about race in America makes you a racist. It is, as Boehlert called it, “a very odd brand of projection” that’s “very weird and complicated,” but that’s where the roles of endless repetition and cognitive closure come in. They naturalize and normalize what would otherwise clearly be both arbitrary and bizarre. After years in development, the result can be quite stunning, as Boehlert went on to note:
That's like Glenn [Beck] that went on Fox News and called the president of the United States a racist, because he dared to discuss it in the wake of the Henry Louis Gates arrest in Cambridge. So that's why he was denounced as having ‘a hatred of white people. Why? Because he talked about race.”
Of course, the framework of colorblind racism also explains the persistence of racial stereotyping, albeit in a “cultural” framework. But the right-wing media takes this aspect to extremes as well, which accounts for another, contradictory tendency: the persistence of “increasingly race-baiting rhetoric,” including all manner of things that Hannity, Limbaugh and Beck have been saying about Obama since his inauguration. “This is some of the most rancid, insulting kind of gutter rhetoric you could imagine,” Boehlert said.” But the cone that they've tried to protect themselves in is that the other people are the racists. It's very weird. I guess said, it's a lot of weird projecting going on.”
While the development of colorblind racism as Bonila-Silva describes it took place over decades, the nastier variants in the right-wing media developed much more rapidly, spurred on in part by Obama’s election. They have now burst forth in multiple forms, one of which is the automatic demonization of any black victim, and the matching valorization of whoever killed or injured that victim. Of course, the specific details of any given case are not always so accommodating to the pre-determined colorblind racist script. As a result, in the killings of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, we’ve strikingly similar false claims about both victims, as well as the men who killed them, and some of those claims have persisted quite powerfully, despite all evidence to the contrary.
While we’ve seen some of those attitudes most brazenly expressed on the Darren Wilson Gofundme site, we see more subtle echoes reflected in statements of support that are carefully crafted to conform to "all-American" norms, such as calls for due process — which Michael Brown, naturally, did not get, and which would not be threatened by treating Wilson like any other murder suspect.
This reflects a broader phenomenon, the persistent power of misinformation, which an inter-disciplinary collection of researchers has been studying for some years now. Most recently, I wrote about one study of misinformation in the context of three initiatives on Washington state’s 2006 ballot. The issues involved were much less charged than the murder of an unarmed black teenager, but all the better, it occurred to me. It may be easier to anecdotally recognize extremely charged distortions in a rapidly shifting framework of rationalizations (unless you’re a Fox News devotee), but as a matter of scientific methodology, it’s easier to study less-charged distortions in more stable issue areas.
So, did someone with hands-on experience studying those less-charged distortions see similar issues at play, as I did? I decided to ask Justin Reedy, principle co-author of the Washington state study. “Just anecdotally, I've seen some things that support both of the phenomena that we think might be happening with misperception: shoddy information in the media, and spontaneous creation of ‘facts’ or ideas that are in keeping with one's values,” Reedy told me.
It’s one of several important open questions in the field just how much distortion wells up from below and how much trickles down from above, and there’s no reason why the proportions should be either similar or stable across different domains, especially in times of dramatic flux, which are particularly challenging to study. But one can’t help noticing how top-down and bottom-up influences can get jumbled together, as when Fox’s Geraldo Rivera speculates on how white jurors will respond at trial:
RIVERA: The white jurors will look at that convenience store surveillance tape. They will see Michael Brown menacing that clerk. The white jurors will put themselves in the shoes of that clerk. They'll say, of course the officer responded the way he did. He was menaced by a 6-foot 4-inch, 300-pound kid, 10 minutes fresh from a strong-armed robbery. The officer was defending himself. The white jurors will put themselves in the white officer's place. The black jurors will see Michael Brown, despite his flaws, as the surrogate for every black youngster ever shot. [Fox News, "Outnumbered"]
Rivera is purporting to present a “balanced” picture: what white jurors will see vs. what black jurors will. And it’s quite true that jurors tend to have racially informed perspectives. But what’s not true is that the surveillance tape had anything to do with the shooting, or that it should play any role in the trial. Hence, virtually all of Rivera’s speculation about how white jurors would think is fatally tainted. On the other hand, the black jurors are presented as intentionally ignoring evidence; “despite his flaws” apparently refers to the surveillance tape, which is legally irrelevant and has no place in a murder trial. Such is the false balance that Rivera presents. It does not take any sort of leap to view Rivera’s performance as providing instruction and guidance, as well as encouragement, for how white jurors should act, in order to legalize modern-day lynchings.
After Zimmerman’s acquittal, Boehlert wrote, in a retrospective overview:
Pledging to uncover the "truth" about the shooting victim and determined to prove definitively that anti-black racism doesn't exists in America (it's a political tool used by liberals, Republican press allies insist), many in the right-wing media have dropped any pretense of mourning Martin's death and set out to show how he probably deserved it.
He was certainly correct to focus attention on dichotomization (what psychologists call “splitting”), which links Martin’s alleged victim-worthiness with Zimmerman’s innocence, if not heroism. Naturally, the very act of “proving” that Martin had it coming was itself a classic form of racist behavior. The belief that such “proof” would “prove” that racism doesn’t exist is itself only the latest twist in a very old story of how racism rationalizes itself.
The question now is how much both sides of this dichotomized narrative will be allowed to advance unchallenged, and more important, whether we will be able to bring new narratives into the discussion. Allowing that old dichotomized narrative to advance means opening the way for a new era of lynching, at the hands of “heroes” like George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson and countless others like them — despite the incredible proliferation of social media and monitoring devices that should, in theory, help empower us with unprecedented knowledge, transparency and capacity for collective action.
But the tools we have at hand are only as good as the hearts and minds that use them. And our hearts and minds are only as good as our commitment to learn hard truths from our history, rather than blindly repeat it.