Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Slaughter of the Innocents?

When I first commented on the George Zimmeman – Trayvon Martin case, I did not intend to give it more than passing attention. However, this incident has caught the national imagination and taken on great symbolic significance for many people. We now have marches and protests across the country. Here in New Orleans, a “march against injustice” linked the Martin case to a couple of recent killings by police. One young boy at the march, according to the Times Picayune, held up a sign asking “Will I be next?” Presumably, he was concerned about whether he would fall victim to the epidemic massacre of black male children by racist white police officers and quasi-police neighborhood patrols.
One problem with symbolic events is that they often symbolize psychologically motivating myths that have only tenuous connections to reality. One of the New Orleans police killings denounced at the protest was apparently the result of a shoot-out between the victim and officers, in which officers were wounded. Although New Orleans police officers have indeed been convicted of murdering unarmed civilians lately, far fewer young black men die from police bullets than the bullets of other young black men. That a majority of all New Orleans officers and some of those convicted of killings are black poses another problem for the racist interpretation of the violence.
When we look at the national statistics on murder, the story of a slaughter of black innocents by whites in authority or whites in general becomes extremely implausible. In the figure below, I show the total numbers of white and black murder victims by race of offenders, from the 2010 Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI.  As is frequently observed, most people killed within their racial groups. This makes sense because people usually have little motivation to kill those they don’t know and people tend to associate most with people similar to themselves. We tend to murder our spouses and intimates more often than we kill strangers, But note that among cross racial murders, it is much more common for blacks to kill whites than for whites to kill blacks.
Murders in 2010, by Race of Victim and Offender
In fact, if we look just at those cross-racial killings, we can see that black on white killings are about double those of white on black killings. Think about that in terms of population sizes. Three-quarters of Americans in 2010 were white, while slightly under 13 percent were black.
Interracial Murders in 2010, by Race of Victim and Offender

Now, whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense or is guilty of murder is a question yet to be determined. He is legally innocent until found guilty. In the court of your private opinion, of course, you may judge him however you please, by whatever evidence you deem appropriate. But whatever the facts of this case, it clearly cannot support the kinds of generalized claims made about it in the protests in my city and elsewhere. Not only are there no connections between this case and the recent shootings in the New Orleans area, all of the evidence indicates that there is no war on young black men, although there certainly is a war among young black men in many places.
So, why are we seeing all of these marches and why has the incident in Florida become an analogy for other exceptional events around the country? Perceiving the Martin case as a universally significant morality play about “social justice” does not fit the facts, but it does fit an emotionally stirring narrative about oppression and liberation.

1 comment:

  1. I've made a point not to comment on this because I don't see the sense in turning a personal tragedy into a public drama. I see this as no different from the media circus surrounding Casey Anthony. As Dr. Bankston points out, this is about symbols and emotion, not facts (not the facts of the case, or the facts of race and murder). Well, I can understand certain communities becoming emotional and latching onto the symbols; I can at least understand a poor or working-class black community using this moment to speak out; and I expect nothing less from Jackson and Sharpton, who never met a tragedy they didn't like. What troubles me is that the moment has been latched onto just as quickly and in just as committed a fashion by people who you'd think would know better.

    For example: the other day, my university held an evening "rally" for the young Mr. Martin; I was in class at the time, and our class stopped so that everyone could go to the rally. Everyone did; except for me, of course; I sat quietly in my seat and waited for everyone to return, quite surprised that a room full of PhD candidates had been swept up by the media-circus. I respect my colleagues and friends deeply, but I admit with a touch of sadness that, had they seen these statistics beforehand, they probably would have gone to the rally anyway.