Midwest Voices

The media myth of the ‘Reverse Trayvon’

Updated: 2013-08-31T23:24:13Z


Special to The Star

Let me start by saying something you’d think a compassionate human being would not have to say out loud:

Any time someone is murdered we should all be shocked, saddened, angered and horrified. We should all offer immediate condolences to the family and press for the criminal justice system to do its work.

Oh, and if we could all want justice for the victims of crime without playing games of racial one-upmanship, that’d be great.

By now we’ve all heard the story of the two black teenagers in Oklahoma who along with their white friend shot and killed Christopher Lane, the young Australian baseball player out for a jog because, according to sources, they were “bored.” The next day came the story of Delbert Belton, a World War II vet beloved by his community and brutally bludgeoned to death by two black teens in Spokane.

Both murders are stunning and horrific. And inexcusable.

If the three kids in Oklahoma shot young Chris Lane out of some sort of racial animus or the kids in Seattle killed that old gentleman because he was white, they need to get charged with a hate crime in addition to whatever murder charges will apply. Period. In our country we are not allowed to target someone on the basis of race without punishment. We either fight for that ideal or we don’t.

But can we please keep in mind that there’s really been no substantive evidence of that yet? While the participation of a white kid in the Oklahoma murder does not automatically rule out a racial motive, it certainly demonstrates the need for further investigation before a racial conclusion is drawn.

I know we have a hard time waiting in these “Get it now” and 24-hour news cycle times, but it could turn out that both these cases may have been crimes of convenience — as is the great preponderance of crime. Criminal individuals prey on whomever there is to prey.

Not that it stops media or the public from speculating. Nor should it necessarily. Part of living in a democracy is the freedom to speculate, to question and challenge. But, man it’d be wonderful if we could do that responsibly even half the time.

These two tragic stories have gained national notice because of the Trayvon Martin case and a follow-up fallacy from the right that white victims of crime don’t get equal notice in media even though empirical evidence and objective reality says the opposite is true.

So now, truth aside, we have the “Reverse Trayvon” phenomenon — cases where white people die at the hands of non-whites but a “politically correct mainstream media” supposedly either doesn’t care or is “too scared to tell the truth.”

The problem for special-interest media pushing this meme is that it doesn’t hold up under honest intellectual scrutiny. It’s really more of a tit-for-tat game against “minorities” played by conservative media and politicians than an actual attempt to get justice for victims of violence. But its emotional appeal is blinding, and that works just as well.

The only similarity between the Trayvon Martin affair (in which a troubled and legally armed vigilante shot an unarmed child and then claimed self-defense after initiating physical contact he admits that child worked hard to avoid) and the cases of black teens murdering two innocent white men is the interracial nature of the crimes and the involvement of teens. 

Because in the cases of Mr. Lane, Mr. Belton and others, the accused have been caught, charged and jailed immediately. There’s no question but that they will face the criminal justice system and pay penalties under the law for what they’ve done. They will not be released from jail to await trial in relative freedom. And, they will not have parts of the public contribute money to their defense funds because it feels these teens were somehow justified in killing their victims.

Can we say the same of the way George Zimmerman’s case unfolded? Not if we’re honest.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard for some people to understand. But the reason the Zimmerman case caught fire in the first place was that the shooter was neither initially arrested nor charged with shooting a kid dead in his father’s own neighborhood. A kid who wasn’t even messing with the shooter or anybody else. (As I’ve said elsewhere, that set off racial justice alarms given the over 350-year-long history of white people literally getting away with the murder of black people with no intervention from the law.)

In the cases that are generally being called “Reverse Trayvons” the perpetrators have been caught and will face the full force of the justice system. And, there has been general and widespread compassion instead of people making the victims out to be at fault for their own deaths, either through actions of their own or the criminal actions of those with whom they shared only racial characteristics.

See, a real “Reverse Trayvon” would be if an armed stranger shot an unarmed kid who was trying to avoid confrontation and we all recognized how outrageous that was, pushed the justice system to mete out just punishment, offered unmitigated condolence and support to the child’s family and then took collective pride in our compassionate unity and furtherance of our egalitarian ideals as a nation. But that didn’t happen.

In the end Trayvon Martin was not killed for being a criminal or doing anything criminal. He was killed because someone thought he looked like a criminal. He was killed by racial perception. And, by George Zimmerman and his gun.

Trayvon was killed unfairly, with no apparent right to defend himself, and the law let that stand. That’s why there were protests — interracial protests. Even some of the jurors who decided they had to free Zimmerman after weighing the evidence have said they did so only because of how the law was written —not because Trayvon was guilty or Zimmerman was innocent.

See the difference?

That’s why it’s preposterous to demand that civil rights leaders who fight wrongs against the group interests of African Americans (like the unjust murder of a black child that looked so much like hundreds of unjust murders that came before it) take some sort of responsibility for criminal individuals who are black and do wrong.

As is demanding they take blame for how profit-based, “bleed-to-lead” media works and which stories it favors. (They control that how?)

Those demands are nothing short of a backhanded attempt, not coincidentally, to attack and silence civil rights voices by building a flaming straw man. To wit: Civil rights leaders and black politicians who speak out about how economic distress creates crime are inherent apologists for black individuals who do crime.

If I may borrow a phrase from the British: Not bloody likely.

Because black communities are even more victimized by black criminals than anybody else, it goes beyond stupidity to claim or imply that people in those communities don’t want criminals held fully accountable. You can absolutely want to alleviate the causes of crime without excusing the individuals who do it. You can absolutely argue against unfair jailing and sentencing without defending people who absolutely deserve to be locked up. You can absolutely understand that murder rates are lower when job numbers are higher and not be an apologist for murder.

OK. Can we move on from there now?

So back to those kids who killed those white men.

Like I said, if these kids killed people because of race they need to face hate crimes charges. But we still need to get really real about some stuff as a society:

Yeah, we need to know how kids got those guns. (We mostly know the answer to that already even though we act like we don’t.) We should be asking ourselves how it’s even possible for kids to be doing adult crimes with adult weapons and then facing adult time.

But we also need to know where they (and too many other American children of other races) got two other equally dangerous things: (1) The attitude that someone else’s life has no value and (2) the idea that they are entitled to take it.

We can lie to ourselves again about how it’s “Simple answer A” or “Simple Answer B.” But, like I said, we’ll be lying.

There’s nothing simple about finding answers that are actual solutions and not just some politician’s or news network’s new catchphrase.

But we could start by refusing to buy into myths and fallacies that serve media-profiting and democracy-wrecking political purposes but not our common democratic interests.



Melvina Johnson Young is a former university lecturer specializing in United States History, Women’s History and African-American History and Cultural Studies. She was a Midwest Voices contributor in 2007.

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