Politics & Policy

The Truth About Who Suffers

And about who inflicts the suffering.

It may seem like ancient history now, but it was only a year ago that we were first subjected to the media circus that was the so-called and now-dropped Duke Rape Case. For months thereafter, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or radio without learning some new tidbit about the accused lacrosse players, even as their accuser remained shrouded in mystery. Today we know there was no rape and now not even a case at all, but even in those early days it was apparent enough that there were glaring problems with the accuser’s story (or, as it happened, stories). But not even those problems prevented the case from consuming the attention of the sages in our national media, whose foot soldiers decamped from New York and Los Angeles and such places to descend on Durham, North Carolina, as quickly as they could find it on the map.

The case was simply irresistible to our sophisticated betters in Manhattan and the tonier zip codes of southern California. The “victim” was black and a single mother, each in itself a shield against criticism, but taken together an impregnable defense against any judgment of her own behavior and motives. Furthermore, she claimed to have been attacked by a group of southern white elites, thus justifying the low opinion of such elites held by those who live within sight of the Pacific Ocean or the Hudson River. (Never mind that none of the accused were actually from the south.) Only when the evidence of the defendants’ innocence and of the prosecutor’s misconduct accumulated to an undeniable critical mass did the media slink off to await the next Big Story.  

Compare the attention given the Duke case with that accorded a far more heinous crime, one whose victims have thus far failed to arouse the sympathies or even the notice of those who found so much enjoyment in their condemnation of the lacrosse players. Chances are, unless you live in Tennessee, you will not recognize the names Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. Christian, 21, and Newsome, 23, both of Knoxville, were driving through that city together on the night of January 6 when they were kidnapped and murdered. Newsome’s burned body was found along some railroad tracks on January 7. Christian remained missing for two more days until her body, stuffed in a trash can, was found in a home not far from where Newsome’s was found. Police and prosecutors allege both victims were raped before being killed. Yes, both. Three men and a woman have been charged with the crimes in a 46-count grand jury indictment handed down in Knoxville on January 31.

The story was given a few brief mentions on the AP wire, which were in turn carried on the Fox News and ABC News websites, but you’ll find no mention of the crime in the online archives of CNN, MSNBC, CBS News, the New York Times, or the Washington Post. Run a similar search for stories on the Duke case and you’ll be sifting through the results for hours.  It’s not as though these news providers have shied away from crime since being embarrassed in the Duke case. For example, when Tara Grant went missing from her suburban Detroit home in February, the investigation grew and grew in media attention until it became a national story. An AP story appearing on the MSNBC website ran under the headline, “Mich. case a perfect recipe for media frenzy.” And indeed it was. When Grant’s dismembered body was discovered inside her home, triggering a manhunt for her husband and his eventual arrest, the coverage ramped up nearly to the point of Laci Peterson-type saturation. Only the carnival surrounding Anna Nichole Smith’s death kept the Grant murder from being the Story of the Month. Yet the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsome are known to almost no one outside Tennessee. Why?

It’s simple: the four suspects accused of killing Christian and Newsome are blacks from the inner city of Knoxville.

Uh oh, we’re not supposed to talk about such things, are we. We’re careful to step ever so gingerly around issues of race and crime, except of course when there is an opportunity, as in the Duke case, to point to a group of privileged whites and say, “See? Look at how badly they’ve behaved! Look at how they treated that poor black single mother!” And in the Michigan case we can look down our noses at a prosperous suburban white family and say, “Look how screwed up they are!” A visitor from a foreign land might read the news and suspect America was plagued by rampaging hordes of collegiate lacrosse players and middle-aged suburbanites. And all the while the far more serious problem of violent crime among minorities in our inner cities is almost completely ignored.

To even broach the topic of inner city crime is almost a social taboo, rather like discussing the bride’s old boyfriends at a wedding reception. But the figures, as they say, do not lie, and we do no one a service by trying to ignore them. Here in Los Angeles, for example, there were 481 murders investigated by the LAPD in 2006, but almost half of them occurred among the 18 percent of the city’s population living in South and South-Central L.A. These areas are almost exclusively black and Latino.

Looking at the numbers more closely, blacks are about 11 percent of the city’s population, but in 2006 they were 36 percent of its murder victims and 40 percent of its known murder suspects. Latinos make up 46 percent of the city’s total population and were about half of its murder victims and suspects. Whites are about 29 percent of the population in Los Angeles but last year were only 4 percent of the city’s murder victims and 2 percent of its known murder suspects.

To its credit, the Los Angeles Times has begun bringing some small measure of attention to these disturbing numbers in the form of its new online feature, the Homicide Report, which tracks every murder occurring in Los Angeles County and includes information on each victim’s race. The inclusion of this information has been criticized in some quarters, and the Times’s response to this criticism deserves quoting at length: 

. . . The Homicide Report departs from this rule [against mentioning a victim’s race] in the interest of presenting the most complete and accurate demographic picture of who is at risk of dying from homicide in Los Angeles County. Race and ethnicity, like age and gender, are stark predictors of homicide risk. Blacks are vastly more likely to die from homicide than whites, and Latinos somewhat more likely. Black men, in particular, are extraordinarily vulnerable: They are 4% of this country’s population, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control, they represented 35% of homicide victims nationally in 2004. Local numbers mirror these national disparities. According to an analysis for The Times by county health officials of homicide data between 1991 and 2002, Latino men ages 20 to 24 were five times more likely than white men the same age to die, and black men were 16 times more likely.

The Homicide Report recognizes the peril of dehumanizing victims by reducing their lives and deaths to a few scant facts — particularly racial designations which provide only the roughest markers of ancestry and history. But given the magnitude of difference in homicide risk along racial and ethnic lines — and the extremity of suffering which homicide inflicts on subsets of the population — we opt here to present information which lays bare racial and ethnic contours of the problem so conspicuous in the coroner’s data. The goal is to promote understanding, and honor a basic journalistic principle: Tell the truth about who suffers . . . 

Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald has pointed out the same type of stark disparities in writing about crime in New York City, but you can choose any city you like and find a similarly alarming set of figures. In the time Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and all the lesser voices in the Choir of the Perpetually Outraged have spent bellowing about the rantings of an aging radio gasbag, how many young black men have been busying themselves killing each other?

Only when the true magnitude of this problem is acknowledged can its solutions be identified and implemented. It will come too late for Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, of course, but in at last daring to report the grim but persistent truth in these statistics, perhaps the Los Angeles Times has opened a door through which the remedy to inner-city crime is found. 

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