When I was a child my family had a consistent reaction to news of horrific crimes on TV: They would look at the screen, wait for the face to pop up, and pray that it wasn’t a black one. If I was over at a friend’s house, I would notice a similar viewing habit in older African Americans. It was as if a communal prayer was being sent up in thousands of households at once, from their eyes and up through the TV screens: Lord, don’t give them another reason. Don’t give them another reason to hate us, to discriminate against us, to racially profile us while we drive, walk and live. And even though most rational people know that racism has more to do with bigoted mindsets than individuals’ actions among a disadvantaged group, the “don’t give another reason” prayer still went up.
Last week, they got two reasons. And the conservative media ran with it.
On Wednesday a disgruntled former employee named Vester Lee Flanagan, a black man, shot and killed two white TV news reporters on air in Roanoke, Virginia. On Saturday Shannon J. Miles, also African American, was arrested for shooting a Texas deputy. These incidents are the latest in a long, numbing progression of recent tragedies at the nexus of gun control, mental health, and a violent culture reacting in rage at a sense of helplessness.
These mass shootings are also usually perpetrated by mentally disturbed white men. But when I found out that an African American man was the killer in one incident and the accused in another, I knew conservative sites like Breitbart would seek to frame the incidents, like any black-on-white crime, as indicative of reverse racism, and a political dog whistle that they are under attack. “RACE MURDER IN VIRGINIA: BLACK REPORTER SUSPECTED OF EXECUTING WHITE COLLEAGUES – ON LIVE TELEVISION!” blared the initial Breitbart headline. On Fox, “Justice with Jeanine” used the Texas story as an opportunity to blame Obama and call Black Lives Matter “black slime that needs to be eradicated.”
American Thinker, a conservative blog, claimed that the “evil” things put in the murderer’s head was the result of Obama liberalism. In the Conservative Treehouse, an article about the Texas deputy’s murder notes: don’t be surprised if the shooter turns out to be a modestly mentally impaired person (think Bubba Gump) who is easily influenced—and lives surrounded by modern anti-cop “Fu*k The Police” type ideological and violent minds.
The artwork used in the article throws everything out there they find responsible for racism in America, from Saul Alinksy to Louis Farrakhan to Obama in a Trayvon Martin hoodie with a Skittles insignia, set against a backdrop of “Hunger Games” of race rabble rousers.
This hyperbolic outcry is part of a longstanding practice of false equivalency—assuming that systemic racial violence towards African Americans and individual incidents of black people killing white people are one and the same.
In the larger arc of history, these media outlets are continuing an American tradition of the ‘black savage myth.” This myth can be placed on gangsta rappers “celebrating” their outrageous violence (mostly against other black men and especially black women). It can come in the form of a 12-year-old boy gunned down in a Cleveland park out of fear, or a father choked to death in Staten Island gasping “I can’t breathe,”or a teenager shot down in the streets of Ferguson who was described as an “animal that needed to be put down” or a 14-year-old boy lynched beyond recognition for whistling at woman in Mississippi. Whatever form this savage image is placed upon appears, the media’s narrative makes it clear that society needs protection from this so-called monster and is justified in torturing, enslaving, castrating, raping, and using every method possible to tame this monster that roars through the imagination of American racists.
The people who die in these scenarios are all black people. And yet, to some conservatives, it’s only racial violence when black kills white.
The right wing media’s logical fallacies extends past race: The local weather is cold so global climate warming isn’t real; if women have greater access to birth control they will become hard-drinking promiscuous abortioneers; the Second Amendment means the government should never take actions in prohibiting gun access to any adult; and taking care of poor people incentivizes poverty. But racial false equivalency is one of the right wing’s most consistent rhetorical tricks.
Often this happens as a reaction to news stories that highlight systemic racial inequalities. In response to the immigration debate, Donald Trump trots out the tragedy of an illegal Mexican immigrant shooting a woman as a sign that all immigrants are a violent threat. When the growing video evidence of police brutality began popping up on screens last summer, the shooting of two NYPD cops by a deeply paranoid African-American man was the perfect opportunity for the New York City’s police union and Fox News to attack Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio for their alleged hatred toward police.
In light of the Virginia murders, Fox News and conservative bloggers are trotting out one of their old false equivalence standards: Black people commit crimes in hatred against white people, so therefore they should be treated the same as hate crimes against blacks. Besides the fact that black citizens are more harshly prosecuted, sentenced, and monitored across the board, the myth of black-on-white crime is exaggerated. Author and anti-racism scholar Tim Wise broke down the FBI crime statistics by stating that 1 percent of African Americans commit violent crimes and the rate of black-on-white crime is actually below the statistical percentage of error for chance encounters, coming in at 0.7 percent. Yet conservative media feasts on these rare violent acts that often committed by mentally insane African Americans.
While white-on-black crime is just as statistically rare, a white person murdering a black person in cases of “Stand Your Ground” is 354 percent more likely to be seen as justified than the other way around.
The reason why false equivalencies work is because surface parallels satisfy most people whose news intake consists of 10-second soundbites. Television and social media have trained people to look for the “gotcha” moment or the most egregious contradictions. It’s a lot easier to play into conservative media’s white victimization model, rather than disassembling the fictional narrative that serves as a platform for violence.
Similar to how #blacklivesmatter triggered #allivesmatter and even #bluelivesmatter responses, the use of this tragedy to propagate some imaginary war against conservative white men is a Donald-Trump level anecdotal fallacy to older white people. It is a sign of a conservative movement in demographic and ethical death throes. Breitbart and sites like it are devoid of historical perspective and chained to an increasingly aging base who are trying to hold onto some semblance of legitimacy through the use of rage politics and intellectual dishonesty. They strike their target audience through easy emotional ploys and the undertones of white American martyrdom from outsiders. In the longterm it is just another stop on the conservative noise machine’s troubling crusade against progress.
Lead art via the Conservative Treehouse
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. He has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre. He graduated from Jiulliard in May.