Imagine today’s 24-hour frenetic news cycle existing on a certain December evening in 1984:
“Breaking news out of New York City – police are responding to a shooting rampage which reportedly followed an altercation on a subway train. There are reports of multiple injuries. The prime suspect is said to have fled…. Bill, what do you make of this?”
“Well, it’s yet another example of urban violence, and further proof that the modern policy of pouring more and more government aid into ghettos has created a lawless mentality.”
“Let’s open up the phone lines – Hello, Frank in Norwalk, Ct…. ‘Yes, this is why decent people don’t want to live in the city anymore. Those street thugs settle scores and don’t care about who gets shot in their crossfire. And they’ll just plea bargain it and be out of jail by tomorrow!’ ”
“This just in – the fleeing suspect has been described as the son of immigrants. Bill?
“This shows how they just aren’t going to assimilate and learn civility unless we make English our only language and stop feeding them that multicultural self-adoration!”
“Back to the phones. We have Suzanne in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Go ahead…. ‘When are we going to keep the undesirables out? Foreigners come here and breed children, like this person, who have no respect for our laws or our ways!’ ”
“We have an update – police have identified the suspected shooter as Bernhard Goetz, whose parents came here from Germany. Bill?
“Ah, another law abiding American fed up with crime. He’s a hero to us all!”…
Well, such a 180-degree turn in spin wouldn’t necessarily be that sudden, but it does characterize how the majority and their mainstream media are biased in assessing actions by shooters, drug dealers and others who do violence.
The enduring fashionableness of Al Capone is underscored by prominently posted notices outside Louisville’s acclaimed Seelbach Hotel and in the corridors of the equally elegant French Lick Springs resort 50 miles away in Southern Indiana, each boasting that the Chicago gangster had been a guest there.
Capone’s deeds rank as romantic cultural lore, and his rise has always been attributed by standard history curriculum to the unwise policy of prohibition. Yet we all know he was a killer; he got rich by ordering the murders of dozens of people to protect his control of the illegal alcohol and prostitution businesses. In one shooting he is thought to have arranged on St. Valentine’s Day 1929, seven people were killed in a Chicago garage.
A black gangster with a record like that will be known as a heartless killer. If he dresses sharply and is charismatic and admired by the poor of his neighborhood, as Al Capone was, he will still be known as a heartless killer, as well as a destroyer of neighborhood stability, a classic example of all that is wrong with black male behavior etc., etc.
And his rise will not be attributed by any consensus of punditry to the ill-advised policy of the war on drugs — well, this may be mentioned among the white mainstream, but as an afterthought. First, all agree, he is a heartless killer.
If I start to check into a hotel somewhere and see a sign bragging that Francois Cunningham or Reggie Rice, high profile Louisville drug dealers from recent years, did illegal drugs here and “you should, too,” I will turn around pronto and look for lodging elsewhere.
In 1974, the catchy pop song, “The Night Chicago Died,” by the British group Paper Lace was No. 1 on the charts of white, mainstream radio (though it is about Al Capone, it seems to mix up imagery from his life with John Dillinger’s, but then a gangster is a gangster).
Yet if a black radio station in our time plays songs glorying urban drug dealer violence, the George F. Wills scream that liberals are encouraging social degeneration by standing by and yielding to a “culture of poverty” that keeps low income youth locked in.
The feelings unleashed by the term “gangster” are of charming Americana when it is our white lore, but precisely the opposite when it is the minority’s.
“Godfather’s Pizza” was the perfectly acceptable name of a popular chain owned by black conservative Herman Cain; the TV ad slogan was “the pizza you can’t refuse!”
Some would argue that this is not any racial double standard; that today’s real life problems naturally are a scare, whereas the violence of 90 years ago is antiquity.
Well, compare two contemporary phenomena of different racial implications.
Here is mainstream culture standard bearer George F. Will’s reaction to the notorious 1989 rape and brutal beating of the woman known to us all as the Central Park jogger: “The attackers did what they did because they are evil. Today people respond: ‘Evil? such a primitive notion – not at all useful as an explanation.’ But that response is not real sophistication, it is a form of flinching. It is a failure of nerve.”
When five young black men were the suspects of a rape, it is simple evil versus the good exemplified by a productive citizen trying to enjoy a jog on a nice day.
It was a rape case which Will and other pundits nearly unanimously said exemplified a norm of the worst of the urban underclass. Now contrast that consensus with what George F. Will said 25 years later about rapes on college campuses.
Commenting on the finding that 20 percent of college women report being sexually assaulted, Will cites American Enterprise Institute numbers from the campus of Ohio State maintaining that the rate at that huge and culturally cross-sectional college was only 2.9 percent.
George Will certainly sees the value of subjecting the dominant belief on a heated issue to a second opinion – how unfortunate that he didn’t see the need to do that in the Central Park case in 1989, when everyone was so sure this was simple evil. It turned out, the horrible rape of the white Manhattan financial district professional wasn’t committed by those five black men Will had derided as heartless, insisting in that column that they “were singing rap songs in their jail cells” in a display of confidence they would get “ludicrously light” punishment. Actually, the five youth were imprisoned unjustly for terms ranging from around seven years each for four of them and 13 years for the fifth. They had never been identified by the victim, as the severe beating left her with no memory of the frightful crime. In large part, the injustice against the Central Park Five was due to a media frenzy spearheaded by Will’s yellow journalism against them.
In 2013, after the state exonerated the five, Will wrote something of an amends column. Now calling the youth “working class” and the prosecution’s case “rickety,” he acknowledged they had not committed the crime and sympathetically described how the five and the father of one of them were manipulated in 1989 by overly aggressive detectives.
The next year, however, in that column on campus rapes, instead of characterizing doubts about guilt as “flinching,” as he indignantly had after the Central Park horrors, Will, with near rabidity, lurches in the other direction. He insists the college rape crisis is exaggerated as part of a culture on the left whereby “victimhood is a coveted status.”
Inner city males fervently presumed guilty as charged. Collegiate males called misjudged due to preexisting victimhood. The pattern is consistent – race and poverty are huge factors in assessing crisis situations.
Now on to sports, the realm which first brought multi-racialism into the living rooms of contented white suburbia.
In 1977, power forward Maurice Lucas of the defending NBA champion Portland Trailblazers was picked for a Sports Illustrated cover as typifying the physical player of the type sports media had dubbed “The Enforcers.” Those two grabber words in large type topped the magazine cover next to Lucas, an African-American graduate of Marquette University.
The expansive story featured Lucas and others talking of how they spot opponents trying to intimidate their superstar teammates — in Lucas’ case, the great 6-foot-11 center Bill Walton — and give the opponent a mean look, or physical contact if required to protect the star.
“A lot of people think I’m just one of these mean guys,” Lucas told SI. “Well, I just play rough. That’s the way you play when you’re in my game.”
Fair enough; those were Lucas’ words. The provocative cover, however, forever gave that belligerent image to Maurice Lucas, who grew up in Pittsburgh. In our sound bite, clichéd society, Lucas will always come to mind first as “The Enforcer.” Meanwhile, teammate Walton, a white man from the middle class suburbs of San Diego, has constantly been noted by media as a vegetarian – shown in 1975 on the pop culture magazine Crawdaddy as an outdoorsy advocate of meatless eating.
Well, in fact, Walton’s diet did not quite make him stand apart from the rest of the NBA the way this media dichotomy would indicate. The Sports Illustrated profile of The Enforcer does not tell fans something left obscure by sports media in general; that Maurice Lucas, Walton’s teammate and close friend, also was a vegetarian, going back many years.
Two seasons earlier, commenting on his meatless diet in the publicity guide of the Kentucky Colonels, the ABA team he played for then, Lucas said: “I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject of nutrition and my diet is what I feel is best for me. Meat takes too long to digest, and I’m getting the proteins and minerals I need. Plus, I feel better.”
But in the far wider media, even though reporters knew both had the same dietary habits, and both were big and aggressive on the court, Walton is the very face of vegetarianism, whereas it will suffice to characterize Lucas as the enforcer, not also as the man who thoughtfully educates himself all about digestion and health.
Even when the bulk of sports journalists are not racists, the institution is rife with racial skewing. Same for the news business.
And our finest hotels. And our pop music. And our minds.
Brian Arbenz, of Louisville, Ky., is a writer, researcher, and social justice and nonviolence advocate.