THE ORIGINAL SIN: Prejudgment and imagination!


Part 3—Imagining Penn getting frisked: Did Trenton Mays and Ma’lik Richmond rape a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio last summer?

For ourselves, we’d have to say that we don’t know. But many people already do know. They live all over the world.

Mays and Richmond go on trial today, having pled not guilty. In this morning’s New York Times, Goode and Schweber report the widespread prejudgment which exists in this high-profile case:
GOODE AND SCHWEBER (3/13/13): The case first came to light through Twitter posts and a photo on Instagram. And the defendants, Trenton Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who have pleaded not guilty, have already been accused, prosecuted, defended and judged guilty or not by their peers and strangers in blog posts, YouTube videos and entries on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Adam Nemann, a defense lawyer for Mr. Mays, said that even members of his own family had asked, “What is there to try?”

Steubenville is nothing if not close-knit: both the local prosecutor and the Juvenile Court judge recused themselves because of personal ties to the case. But the Internet onslaught that followed the disclosure has caused bitter divisions among the 18,000 residents of this industrial city on the banks of the Ohio River—“an old school town,” as one local restaurant owner put it—and introduced them to the modern court of public opinion, where a commentator or a critic might live next door or in New Jersey or Bangladesh.
Commentators in Bangladesh may not fully know what actually happened in this case; the same is true of the commentators who “might live next door.” But fairly often, we the people don’t recognize the limits to our knowledge.

Quite often, we the people don’t seem to know which things we don’t really know.

We were frequently struck by this fact as we read the comments to Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’ column in Thursday’s New York Times—as we read the column itself. Coates seemed to assume that Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of a crime last month because he is black.

(Whitaker was falsely accused. Everyone agrees that he did nothing wrong.)

Needless to say, it may be true that Whitaker was falsely accused because he is black. But does Coates really know that? In his column, he seems to assume that this is the case, but he doesn’t ever attempt to explain the basis for this judgment—for a judgment which may well be true.

That said, many commenters were able to reach the same judgment, and the novelization flowed. An early comment started like this:
COMMENT FROM KANSAS CITY, MO (3/7/13): It seems that frustration with theft has taken the good instincts of an otherwise useful citizen and employee and regressed him into a racist. Being a good person means resisting under pressure the power and prejudiced advantages of merely viewing persons of color as "them," if you're a good white person. But he didn't resist. He let fly. It is a double too-bad that it was such a sensitive and brilliant actor, but frankly resisting prejudging should extend to all persons not in one's group, especially if your group has real power or cultural power, as we whites still think and see we have.
Why was it “double too-bad” that a brilliant actor was falsely accused? We have no idea, though an imperfect set of reactions and judgments may seem seem to be lurking there. But beyond that, we have no idea why this commenter thought he could novelize in this way about a person, a deli employee, who hasn’t even been named in the press.

Why did the commenter picture the false accuser as “an otherwise useful citizen and employee?” We have no idea. The false accuser hasn’t been named, or even identified by age and race.

Isn’t it possible that the accuser isn’t “an otherwise useful citizen” who is possessed of “good instincts?” Consider:

Last weekend, we watched Ben Affleck star in The Town, a film in which we’re invited to love and admire Ben Affleck because he is playing the most sensitive person in a group of four bank robbers (and killers). (It's no wonder Rebecca Hall swooned!)

In this film, most of the criminals seem to hold some sort of cover employment. How do we know that this false accuser, who hasn’t been named, isn’t perhaps some sort of hoodlum in his actual life? For ourselves, we have no idea what this unnamed person is actually like; he may be an upstanding person, or then again, he may not. Nor do we have any idea why Coates says he believes that the deli owner is sincere in his statements of regret.

(Although, of course, he may be sincere. We’d be inclined to assume he is until some actual reporting suggests that he actually isn’t—but Coates says he believes this.)

For ourselves, we have no idea what the accuser is actually like; ditto for his employer. But as you read the comments to Coates’ column, you will find comments from many people who don’t seem to recognize the limits to their knowledge. They make assertions about the players which they can’t possibly know to be true—or, as in this quoted comment, they tell us how the various players “seem.”

Why does “it seem” that the false accuser is an “otherwise useful citizen” who is blessed with “good instincts?” Like many others, the commenter from Kansas City didn’t feel the need to explain; nor did he explain the judgment that this person seems to have "regressed into a “racist." These commenters are imagining what has occurred—and they’re involved in chains of prejudgment.

Coates seems to have judged the case in certain ways too, and he never explains his reasoning. Elsewhere, though, imagination fails him. We were struck by quite a few parts of his column. For today, though, let’s focus on the highlighted part of this passage:
COATES (3/7/13): The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.
Coates writes about an Oscar winner, then complains that these stories are “given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner.” That said, he seems to imagine many things about this particular incident in that passage, all of which may be true.

When Coates imagines those things, he is involved in prejudgment—prejudgment which may not be true. That said, in that final paragraph, he says he can’t imagine certain things.

In that passage, imagination fails. To us, this seems a bit odd, because we can imagine all those things occurring. To tell you the truth, we can imagine Penn and Cage getting frisked every day of the week. But then, we can also imagine a white president forced to show his papers, although, as far as we know, this has never happened.

We can imagine such an event. Here’s why we can do that:

Before Obama, the previous Democratic president was Bill Clinton. He was said to be the first black president, although he was actually white.

That said, suppose Bill Clinton had been black? During the years of his actual presidency, the white Bill Clinton was widely accused, by major figures, of running drugs through Mena, Arkansas—and of being a serial killer.

It was also said that he visited Moscow while at Oxford because he was a Soviet agent. You can set that one aside.

Suppose Bill Clinton actually had been the first black president. Does anyone doubt that some observer, at some point, would have written this?
WHAT SOMEBODY SURELY WOULD HAVE WRITTEN: I am trying to imagine a white president accused of running drugs and killing people, and I am coming up blank.
For many people, that would have been hard to imagine. But We don’t have to imagine such conduct, because we all saw it happen. (As a general matter, we all kept our big traps shut as this conduct occurred.)

Imagination can be quite selective. So can its first cousin, prejudgment. People who share our general views will often rush to affirm our prejudgments. But those who may not be so inclined will start penning comments like this:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK CITY (3/7/13): Coates provides no evidence that Whitaker was singled out because he is black. While I recognize the problem he's diagnosing, why should we make that assumption in this particular case?
Reading between the lines, this commenter seems to believe that blacks are often falsely accused. He understands that this is a problem. Having said that, he doesn’t know why Coates is assuming that this is what happened in this particular instance.

He’s asking an obvious question. This question was asked more frequently as the 594 published comments piled up last Thursday. Why does Coates assume that Whitaker was accused because of his race? This question occurred to many readers, as you can see by scrolling through the comments.

(In a fairly familiar pattern, the earlier commenters tended to imagine this incident much as Coates did. As the day went on, commenters tended to question his assumptions more often, perhaps as the column began to be read by more people who aren’t regular Times readers.)

Why does Coates assume that Whitaker was (falsely) accused because of his race? In the comments which were published, quite a few readers asked this question—a question Coates didn’t address in his column. That said, it’s a fairly obvious question. We will assume that the question occurred to other readers who challenged it in unpleasant ways, such that their comments didn’t get published. Those readers and others will leave this column sputtering about the assumptions and preconceptions of liberals.

Some will ask this question politely; others will not. But all those people are asking an obvious question, a question Coates didn’t address. A question the editors of the Times didn’t require him to address.

Did two black teen-agers in Ohio rape a teen-age girl last summer? People in Bangladesh already know!

Did an unnamed, undescribed deli employee falsely accuse on the basis of race? For ourselves, we’d have to say we don’t know.

More imaginative readers of the Times aren’t burdened by our lack of knowledge. Does this advance progressive interests?

Fiery liberals may imagine it does. There’s no real way to say.

Tomorrow: The summer of 57. Also, Michael Richards


  1. "Because he is black" is the wrong formulation of the issue. What reasonably and correctly matters is a "but for" test -- whether the same action would have been taken for the identical behavior if he were white. That includes not only being confronted about a perceived shoplift, but also being frisked.

    It's a lot easier to believe he was not targeted "because he was black" than that it would have happened in all the ways it did happen if he had been white. Although TDH is fundamentally correct about the tendency to jump to conclusions, our history -- I have yet to hear of anyone joking ironically about being pulled over DWW, or "driving while white" -- and a minimal effort at self-examination puts the burden of persuasion on those who would believe it was entirely innocent, i.e., that yes, the same actions would have been taken by a private store guard even if the person had been white.

    The fact that he did not shoplift anything reinforces that relative burden of persuasion. So does the fact that Whitacre seemed from the reports to have believed himself that it would not have happened that way if he had been white.

    I doubt if any black American who knows about this incident doesn't believe deep down that no matter how tolerant and multicultural the atmosphere at the deli seemed to be, the guard would not have behaved exactly the same way if the suspected shoplifter had been white -- that the attention would not have been as close and that the person would not have been patted down publicly quite as readily. Remember, every bit of the behavior has to be identical to meet the proper test. I give Coates a pass on this one. TDH is being cavalier here about the history that justifies his reaction.

    P.S. It was Coates himself who felt sure the offender was otherwise a good person, partly from the report of the store owner and the apologies all around. The commenter who said that was entitled to rely on that for this limited purpose without being subjected to ridicule.

  2. Quaker in a BasementMarch 13, 2013 at 3:05 PM

    "Before Obama, the previous Democratic president was Bill Clinton. He was said to be the first black president, although he was actually white."

    It was Toni Morrison who called Clinton "the first black president." It might be instructive to review why she did that.

    1. Morrison said that "Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas," and compared Clinton's scrutinized sex life to the stereotyping and double standards that blacks typically endure.

      What's your point?

    2. Quaker in a BasementMarch 13, 2013 at 10:19 PM

      That she "compared Clinton's scrutinized sex life to the stereotyping and double standards that blacks typically endure."

      The whole reason Morrison called Clinton the "first black president" is because he was subject to just the sort of criticisms regularly aimed at black men. Somerby forgets this.

    3. You couldn't have said that in the first place? You had to wait until somebody else came up with something you could crib off of? Coy bullshit.

      Regardless, you haven't actually made a point or an argument, even with the cribbing.

    4. QiB never has a legitimate point to make. Take that to the bank.

  3. I've been pulled over many times for driving while cute. Attractive young women in their early 20s are frequently pulled over by cops who proceed to flirt with them and wind up issuing no citation (just a "warning"). Young women regularly encounter this kind of harrassment.

    Don't assume there is no such thing as "driving while white." I can imagine that officers who must write a quota of tickets (to raise revenues for cash-strapped localities) might single out those drivers they think may be less likely to give them a hassle or result in a car chase or violent response, who might be less likely to be in the process of committing some other crime that would result in unexpected threat to the officer or take time to book at the end of a shift. In such a case, the "safer looking" people might be singled out for attention. This would be an instance of driving while white (or female or elderly or driving a station wagon).

    I have never understood why it is that people are considered biased when they generalize based on previously observed frequencies of behavior. This is how normal categorization processes work, it is simple inference. It is wrong to assume that any individual is necessarily representative of such a category, but it is not wrong to form and maintain such categories. We use them all the time in our thinking, as when we see a cat-like animal and assume it has the properties and behavior of a cat instead of a dog or ferret.

  4. If you generalize behavior based on skin color, even though the overwhelming majority of people of that skin color do not behave that way and there's no sensible theory why skin color would cause that behavior, that's racism in its purest form. If you want to justify that, then don't fight an accusation that it's racist. Own it.

  5. The race of the un-identified deli clerk is almost certainly irrelevant. Black people are known to be infected with white supremacist ideas, altho' this seems to often manifest in a kind of generational prejudice: witness Bill Cosby.

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