Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Crime, News Coverage, and Institutional Racism

If there's anything that pretty much everyone should agree on in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story, it's that the story shows how deeply divided we remain as a country.

At least as reflected by posts on Facebook, 100% of my liberal intelligentsia friends are outraged that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free, and the debates between us (to the extent that there have been any) have been about which people in the criminal justice system get which share of the blame. Along with outrage, ethnic minorities and African Americans in particular also express a collective hurt and fear that I will never truly understand.

Yet others (here is where I'm grateful that not all of my friends and family are in the liberal intelligentsia) are miffed at the race-focused attention by the media and the political push to make the case into a symbol of broader issues. While I needn't say it, let's be explicit about the fact that nearly 100% of these folks are white. (I’m not Facebook friends with Clarence Thomas, and even if I were, I wonder if he posts more than once every seven years.)

While not all of these white, “Why the fuss?” crowd would admit it if probed, I think a good bit of this discomfort with the attention paid to the Zimmerman/Martin case comes from the implicit finger being pointed at them. If blacks are held down in schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system, surely somebody’s doing the holding. If minorities have unfair disadvantages, then the surplus unfair advantage is going to white people. If the system is racist, and you believe in the system, doesn’t that make you racist?

The good news is that the failure to be outraged over Trayvon’s death doesn’t make one a bigot, but the bad news is that this is because the answer is way more complicated than that. I hope to reassure my white, politically centrist or right-of-center friends that I’m not calling them racist or bigoted. Yet there are little things that we all do — you and me, blacks and whites, powerful and disempowered — that play into an incredibly intricate system of racial inequality.

I give you institutional racism.

The bigotry need not be in (y)our hearts; it can be in the mortgage you grant or don’t, the education policies you adopt, or the policing tactics you support. Mayor Bloomberg is obviously comfortable around racial minorities and would surely never dream of not hiring somebody due to their race, but he remains tone deaf to the incredibly not-race-neutral (and, frankly, not constitutional) nature of his policing strategies.

Which brings us back to Martin and Zimmerman. The justice system, as a whole, is heavily biased against minorities. Blacks are very over-represented in the criminal justice system; less than 1% of white men are imprisoned, while for black men, it’s 1 in 15, or almost 7%. This happens at every step of the criminal justice system, from police investigation through trial. As the Times notes:
A 2005 study by the Justice Department found that while Hispanic, black and white drivers were stopped by the police about as often, Hispanic drivers or their vehicles were searched 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for white drivers. Data collected from state courts by the Justice Department also shows that a higher percentage of black felons than white felons receive prison sentences for nearly all offenses, and also that blacks receive longer maximum sentences for most offenses.
Even in murder trials where defendants claim self defense, race is a major factor. See this graphic. Versus the baseline of white-on-white violence, black defendants are far less likely to be found to have acted in self-defense, and it’s many times again less likely when the victim is white. In contrast, white defendants are many times more likely to be found to have acted in self-defense when the victim is black.

That’s institutional racism.

Yet it goes farther. Many of the white “Why the fuss?” crowd might even acknowledge the racial bias in the courts (though too few are familiar with the staggering specifics), but they object to all the political outrage over Trayvon and wonder where the sympathy and coverage are for white crime victims, especially when the accused perpetrators are black.

It turns out, though, that the news media are also afflicted with institutional racism. This goes well beyond the genuine hacks like Bill O’Reilly. Rather, it’s the whole system — the one largely staffed by left-of-center reporters and editors.

An analysis of scholarly studies of the representation of race in crime coverage is telling. As summarized here, “75 percent of the studies found that minorities were overrepresented as perpertrators, [and] over 80 percent of the studies found that more attention was paid to white victims than to minority victims.”

A somewhat newer study, which includes a representative national sample of television newscasts, finds similarly striking results, cutting in the same direction. Even the portrayal of black female victims is far too rare — this even though female victims are more likely to be seen on the news than male victims overall.

In the aftermath of a major story about a black victim, killed by a white shooter, we’re hearing a good bit of “Why the fuss?” and “Where’s the attention to white victims and/or black perpetrators?” With no disrespect to any victim, whites have nothing to worry about when it comes to folks who look like them being shown on the news as victims of serious crimes. No news outlet can cover every story, but over time, white victims and black perpetrators have been and certainly will continue to be overrepresented.

On this count, Martin and Zimmerman are symbols for the broader problem of institutional racism in this country. Nobody needs to be energetically or even consciously racist for the major racial disparities we see to continue. Continuing racial inequity doesn’t need the next George Wallace; Michael Bloomberg will do just fine.

If you’re on the happy side of these inequalities, I think you should at least be honest with yourself and the world about the thousands of little ways in which your life is that much easier because of it. This isn’t to diminish the countless things you’ve undoubtedly done right, the hard work you’ve done, the substantial degree to which you’ve earned your place.

As white Americans, though, let’s at least all agree to be honest with ourselves and each other that we get at least a small leg up in pretty much every institution in society with which we deal.

That every right decision is likely to get us just a bit farther along than it would for an African American.

That we have at least a bit more room to make mistakes before being fired, evicted, jailed — or killed. 

That the few places where we don't have every advantage clearly pointed in our direction (college admissions and scholarships come to mind) are the exception and, regardless of what one thinks of them as policies, will never outweigh the much larger forces that cut the other direction.

That, yes, there are a few rich blacks and many poor whites, and class inequality is also a major issue that needs to be addressed — but that this doesn't disprove any of the above.

Then, please join me in a quest to fight those disparities, one institution at a time. Not by making life harder for whites, of course, but by extending the same understanding, opportunities, and benefit of the doubt to all.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Hey folks, is now the host of our blog. All the old posts have been carried over. We hope you'll join us at the new and improved ShoutingLoudly.


Update: Bill Herman has also posted a static website with some professional information. See for more

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This Blog Is Not A Pipe Bomb

An Ohio University graduate student was recently charged with a misdemeanor for inducing panic when the Columbus Division of Fire's bomb squad shut down several buildings and destroyed his bicycle. The cause for concern was a sticker on the bike featuring the name of a Florida punk band, "This Bike Is Not A Pipe Bomb." Officials say that there would have been no problem had the sticker been put on a telephone pole instead. The Columbus Dispatch has the details.

On the one hand, we must recognize that context is everything, and it is probably unwise to label your personal goods as homemade explosives just as it is unwise to tell terrorist jokes in the line at the airport. On the other hand, what kind of terrorist mass-produces stickers for actual bike-shaped pipe bombs?

Update: I just noticed that the University dropped the charges today.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Times' (slow) tech news: Another example

Today, another good example supporting last night's thesis: the Times has respectable tech and tech law coverage, as long as you don't mind being a bit behind the curve and missing some of the nuance. Their stuff is uninspiring, and if you're reading it there for the first time, you'd better not need to know it, but it'll do for most people.

This article is really about network neutrality, but they don't use the phrase or tip readers off to the online resources discussing the issue. In all fairness, they did urge net neutrality in an editorial several weeks ago. Still, this has been brewing for a couple years now and the Times is just getting hip to it as it's boiling over in Congress. Another serious drawback: they fail to note Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-OR) bill to preserve network neutrality.

This is the tech law crisis of the year. In the early days, right wing groups like the Progress & Freedom Foundation described net neutrality as a problem in search of a solution (pdf). (Less tech-hip neocon groups have adopted the language, too. Here's just one example.) Nobody would ever discriminate, broadband providers insisted, so why regulate?

In the last several months, this has changed radically. In November, SBC CEO Ed Whitacre said the following in a Business Week interview:
Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
At the time, SBC PR people and the telecomm industry generally denied that this was their new business model. Now, they're being more honest about it. FreePress has noticed this pattern of telecomm execs admitting that charging content providers is their new business model. Add Verizon Sr. VP John Thorne to that list.

In this Times story, there's no history of industry obfuscation of their long-term goal to create tiered delivery of content based on content providers' payments. There's no sense of where the legislation is at. It's just a catfight between internet big wigs, stripped of its context, with less than a full sense of what's at stake.

Again: if you read the Times for your tech news, at least you won't be clueless. You will, however, come to debates long after they have been framed by corporate, government, and advocacy group spin doctors. That just seems like a low down dirty shame.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Analysis: Times' tech news

I've long been thinking about--and linking to--Times coverage of technology and tech law; I now share that thought.

The Times is a respectable source for technology and tech law news--they don't give the blow-by-blow details of every story, and they're not always the fastest, but they cover almost all the truly big stories before they get stale and do so pretty well.

Basically, I would now recommend the Times to anybody who doesn't have the time, patience, or energy to really stay on top of tech news the "right" way--the blogosphere and tech news outlets. But if you're even reading this, you probably think I'm being ironic because you already know more about tech news than anybody who would take this advice. Just in case...

If you reeeeally want to be hip, read CNet's, Slashdot, and BoingBoing. (These are the tip of the iceberg; other good examples include Techdirt,, and National Journal's Telecomm Update.) If you want to be kind of hip, read a platform-specific magazine such as PCWorld, Macworld, or MacAddict. If you just don't want to be freakin' clueless, read the Times technology section.

It's nice that the nation's paper of record is serving as the backstop in the digital millennium, though they're really missing a chance to be exceptional. By the time they get around to something, most people who care already know. At least they're a good barometer that a subject has hit the national consciousness.

Two great examples were on the site today. First, there's a piece about WiFi moochers. Second up to bat, how much profit is lurking in cell phones? These articles are decent, but for whom is this stuff news?

The Times would have a shade more tech credibility, IMO, with just one change--they could offer permanent links rather than forcing bloggers to use the NYTimes Link Generator. A tangles mass of blog links will never be a substitute for their paid archives search, and they would be a more legitimate source for the blogosphere.

Okay, they've already given out the first three Oscars (Stewart is doing better on the fly than with any of his scripted stuff, which hit flat), so I'm done now.

Friday, March 03, 2006

DoJ investigates music price fixing

Here's a shock: the big 4 music labels are under investigation by the DoJ for price fixing.

Pay your bills, set off Homeland Security flags

Scripps Howard tells the story of a very ordinary married couple who paid off a large chunk of their credit card bill and thereby attracted the attention of Homeland Security.

Pay your bills, get harassed by secretive federal agency. That's awesome. In fact, that's exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Fourth Amendment.

Three cheers for those who would keep America scared (mov).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sen. Wyden drops his net neutrality bill

Today, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill mandating network neutrality today. Without it, companies like Verizon and Comcast will begin to create a tiered, even walled internet, where content providers that can pay for the delivery of their bits will get speedier access (or any access) to ISPs' customers.

In another article, Wyden talks in detail about his concerns about the future of the internet and what he hopes the bill can accomplish.

Further links here and here and here and here. Not that anybody thinks this issue is newsworthy.