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Truth takes a hit when racial clichés drive the story

8/25/2013, 12:57 p.m.
As scores of people head to the National Mall this week commemorating 50 years since the March on Washington, some ...
James Francis Edwards Jr., 15, and Chancey Allen Luna, 16, were charged with murder. A third teenager, Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and with firing a weapon. All were charged as adults, according to the Stephens County District Attorney’s Office.

That person was not the dead teen Trayvon Martin, but a different young black man. About a year later, Zimmerman's defense team released images taken from Martin's cellphone which did show him shirtless, making a similar gesture to the camera, but it's tough to know what that revealed other than a teen with a typical rebellious streak.

Still, an unspoken argument seems to be wrapped up in these stories. It's the conflict over institutional prejudice and racism.

In the Trayvon Martin case, police knew who killed the teen and resisted arresting him for 44 days. That fueled concerns that laws such as Florida's stand your ground legislation were making it easier to profile and kill African-Americans. That seems a long way from a presumed thrill killing in which suspects were arrested within days, saying they shot Lane because they were "bored."

Even news that one of the teens involved in Lane's murder posted anti-white statements on Twitter months ago seems a different point. But some media outlets, committed to the idea that American institutions such as the criminal justice system are mostly fair, have focused on more personal explanations for such tragedies, emphasizing the criminality of some black people in ways that evoke old stereotypes about people of color and crime.

It seems obvious that real-life incidents rarely fit neat categories and the need to explain senseless deaths can lead to a lot of jumped-to conclusions.

But if the Chris Lane and Trayvon Martin cases teach anything, it's that cherry-picking facts to fit a preconceived narrative can be a road to inaccuracy and unfairness.

Here's hoping somebody is taking time to soak up the lesson.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Deggans.

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