Facing Facts about Race

by Victor Davis Hanson
Young black males are at greater risk from their peers than from the police or white civilians.

Last week President Obama weighed in again on the Trayvon Martin episode. Sadly, most of what he said was wrong, both literally and ethically.

Pace the president, the Zimmerman case was not about Stand Your Ground laws. It was not a white-on-black episode. The shooting involved a Latino of mixed heritage in a violent altercation with a black youth.

Is it ethical for the president to weigh in on a civil-rights case apparently being examined by his own Justice Department? The president knows that if it is true that African-American males are viewed suspiciously, it is probably because statistically they commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. If that were not true, they might well be given no more attention as supposed suspects than is accorded to white, Asian, or Latino youths. Had George Zimmerman been black, he would have been, statistically at least, more likely to have shot Trayvon Martin — and statistically likewise less likely to have been tried.

Barack Obama knows that if non-African-Americans were to cease all inordinate scrutiny of young African-American males, the latters’ inordinate crime rates would probably not be affected — given other causation for disproportionate incidences of criminality. Yet should their statistical crime profiles suddenly resemble those of other racial and ethnic groups, the so-called profiling would likely cease.

The president, I think, spoke out for three reasons: 1) He is an unbound,  lame-duck president, with a ruined agenda, facing mounting ethical scandals; from now on, he will say things more consonant with being a community organizer than with being a nation’s president; 2) he knows the federal civil-rights case has little merit and cannot be pursued, and thus wanted to shore up his bona fides with an aggrieved black community; and 3) as with the ginned-up “assault-weapons ban” and the claim that Republicans are waging a “war on women,” Obama knows, as a community activist, that tension can mask culpability — in his case, the utter failure to address soaring unemployment in the inner city, epidemic black murder rates, the bankruptcy of Detroit, and the ways his failed economic policies disproportionately affect inner-city youth.

Attorney General Eric Holder earlier gave an address to the NAACP on the Zimmerman trial. His oration was likewise not aimed at binding wounds. Apparently he wanted to remind his anguished audience that because of the acquittal of Zimmerman, there still is not racial justice in America.

Holder noted in lamentation that he had to repeat to his own son the lecture that his father long ago gave him. The sermon was about the dangers of police stereotyping of young black males. Apparently, Holder believes that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Yet I fear that for every lecture of the sort that Holder is forced to give his son, millions of non-African-Americans are offering their own versions of ensuring safety to their progeny.

In my case, the sermon — aside from constant reminders to judge a man on his merits, not on his class or race — was very precise.

First, let me say that my father was a lifelong Democrat. He had helped to establish a local junior college aimed at providing vocational education for at-risk minorities, and as a hands-on administrator he found himself on some occasions in a physical altercation with a disaffected student. In middle age, he and my mother once were parking their car on a visit to San Francisco when they were suddenly surrounded by several African-American teens. When confronted with their demands, he offered to give the thieves all his cash if they would leave him and my mother alone. Thankfully they took his cash and left.

I think that experience — and others — is why he once advised me, “When you go to San Francisco, be careful if a group of black youths approaches you.” Note what he did not say to me. He did not employ language like “typical black person.” He did not advise extra caution about black women, the elderly, or the very young — or about young Asian Punjabi, or Native American males.  In other words, the advice was not about race per se, but instead about the tendency of males of one particular age and race to commit an inordinate amount of violent crime.

It was after some first-hand episodes with young African-American males that I offered a similar lecture to my own son. The advice was born out of experience rather than subjective stereotyping. When I was a graduate student living in East Palo Alto, two adult black males once tried to break through the door of my apartment — while I was in it. On a second occasion, four black males attempted to steal my bicycle — while I was on it. I could cite three more examples that more or less conform to the same apprehensions once expressed by a younger Jesse Jackson. Regrettably, I expect that my son already has his own warnings prepared to pass on to his own future children.

Holder, of course, knows that there are two narratives about race in America, and increasingly they have nothing to do with each other. In one, African-Americans understandably cite racism and its baleful legacy to explain vast present-day disparities in income, education, and rates of criminality. Others often counter by instead emphasizing the wages of an inner-city culture of single-parent families and government dependence, and the glorification of violence in the popular media.

In the old days of the Great Society, we once dreamed of splitting the difference — the government would invest more in the inner city, while black leadership in turn would emphasize more self-help and self-critique.

Not now. Both sides have almost given up on persuading the other. Eric Holder’s speech to the NAACP might as well have been given on Mars. It will convince zero Americans that stereotyping of young African-American males and Stand Your Ground laws are the two key racial problems facing America.

Again, Holder may offer his 15-year-old son the same warning that his father gave him about the dangers of racist, stereotyping police. Yet I suspect — and statistics would again support such supposition — that Holder privately is more worried that his son is in greater danger of being attacked by other black youths than by either the police or a nation of white-Hispanic George Zimmermans on the loose.

Besides, two developments over recent decades have made Holder’s reactionary argument about black/white relations mostly irrelevant. First, America is now a multiracial nation. The divide is not white versus black. And as the Zimmerman trial reminds us, it is no longer a nation where most of the authority figures are white males. We saw a female judge, a female jury, and an Hispanic in confrontation with an African-American; today those of various racial pedigrees and different genders interact in ways that transcend the supposed culpability of white males.

Second, the attitude of the so-called white community toward racial challenges is not so much political as class driven. White liberals have largely won the argument that massive government expenditure must be infused into the black community. Yet they have probably lost the argument that such vast government investments have done much to alleviate the plight of urban black youth.

Stranger still, there is no evidence in our increasingly self-segregated society that white liberals stand out as integrationists. The latter increasingly have the capital to school their children far from the inner city, to live largely apart from inner-city blacks, and in general to avoid the black underclass in the concrete as much as they profess liberal nostrums for it in the abstract.

No one seems to care that the children of our liberal elite, black and white, go to places like Sidwell Friends rather than to Washington public schools, where the consequences of 50 years of liberal social policy are all too real. If Chris Matthews wishes to apologize collectively for whites, then he should have long ago moved to an integrated neighborhood, put his children in integrated schools, and walked to work through a black neighborhood to get to know local residents. Anything else, and his apology remains what it is: cheap psychological recompense for his own elite apartheid.

Just as Eric Holder preferred anecdote to statistics, so too I end with an unscientific vignette of my own. Last week I was driving in northern California with the attorney general’s speech playing on the car radio. North of San Francisco I stopped to buy coffee and two local newspapers.

In one, there was a gruesome story of a young African-American male charged with ransacking a San Francisco jewelry store and murdering two employees, Khin Min, 35, of San Francisco, and Lina Lim, 51, of Daly City. The owner of the shop, Vic Hung, fought back and survived, despite receiving gunshot and stab wounds in the attack.

The suspected attacker had a prior record of violent assault. The victims were all of Asian ancestry. I don’t think their families would agree with Eric Holder that self-defense laws were the cause of such interracial violence. Nor would the six policemen who were fired upon by the suspect agree that stereotyping prompted this sort of mayhem.

Barack Obama will never suggest that the suspected killer physically resembles himself some three decades ago — and there would be no point in doing so. Nor will he admit that if Barack Obama owned an urban jewelry store and needed its profits to send his daughters to Sidwell Friends, he too might have become apprehensive when a young black male entered his store.

In the other paper, there was a strangely similar tale. Not far away, in Santa Rosa, at about the same time, two African-American youths in hoodies attacked another jewelry store, also had a shoot-out with the owner, and also failed to evade the police — though in this case none of the employees or customers was injured.

In such cases, too many Americans find there is a sort of tired sameness. The victims were white or Asian. The murder and robbery suspects were young African-American males. The violence was aimed not at acquiring food or clothing, but at stealing luxury goods. The armed small-business owners tried to defend themselves by firing back at their attackers. Had they been unarmed, both would have probably perished. In one case, the police were fired upon. The suspects had prior arrests.

And on and on and on across America each day, this same tragedy is played out of a small percentage of Americans committing violent crimes at rates far exceeding their proportion of the general population.

The world will long remember Trayvon Martin, but few people — and certainly not Barack Obama or Eric Holder, who have a bad habit, in an increasingly multiracial country, of claiming solidarity on the basis of race — will care that Khin Min and Lina Lim were torn to pieces by bullets and a knife. Few will care that they died in a vicious assault that had nothing to do with stereotyping, Stand Your Ground self-defense, weak gun laws, insufficient federal civil-rights legislation, or any of the other causes of interracial violence falsely advanced by the attorney general — but quite a lot to do with an urban culture that for unspoken reasons has spawned an epidemic of disproportionate violent crime on the part of young African-American males.

I offer one final surreal footnote to this strange juxtaposition of reading the real news while listening to the mytho-history that a Eric Holder constructed from the death of Trayvon Martin to indict both the police and the public.

What were the names of two of the men suspected of being the ones who last week shot it out with the Santa Rosa jeweler as Eric Holder demagogued the Trayvon Martin shooting?

Traveon Banks-Austin and Alexander Tyvon Brandon.

And so the tragedy continues.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.