White liberals, please stay in your cars: Occasionally, a professional journalist will reject a Standard Group Story.
On Monday, Will Saletan rejected the current Standard Story in a post at Slate. As he starts, he says he “almost joined the frenzy” about the Zimmerman verdict:
SALETAN (7/15/13): I almost joined the frenzy. Yesterday I was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling. But I hadn’t followed the case in detail. So I sat down and watched the closing arguments: nearly seven hours of video in which the prosecution and defense went point by point through the evidence as it had been hashed out at the trial. Based on what I learned from the videos, I did some further reading.In fact, this story can be seen as an object lesson “in the perils of racial profiling,” although it isn’t clear why Zimmerman was concerned by Martin’s presence and/or conduct that night.
It seems to us that Saletan expresses more certainty than he can actually have. But this is the way he came to see the case after his evaluation. His piece includes many links:
SALETAN (continuing directly): It turned out I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism. Some of the people Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men, so he was a racist. Members of his family seemed racist, so he was a racist. Everybody knew he was a racist, so his recorded words were misheard as racial slurs, proving again that he was a racist.We tend to agree with most of that. In particular, we tend to agree with this statement, though we'd add a qualification:
The 911 dispatcher who spoke to Zimmerman on the fatal night didn’t tell him to stay in his car. Zimmerman said he was following a suspicious person, and the dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that." Chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda conceded in his closing argument that these words were ambiguous. De la Rionda also acknowledged, based on witness and forensic evidence, that both men “were scraping and rolling and fighting out there.” He pointed out that the wounds, blood evidence, and DNA didn’t match Zimmerman’s story of being thoroughly restrained and pummeled throughout the fight. But the evidence didn’t fit the portrait of Martin as a sweet-tempered child, either. And the notion that Zimmerman hunted down Martin to accost him made no sense. Zimmerman knew the police were on the way. They arrived only a minute or so after the gunshot. The fight happened in a public area surrounded by townhouses at close range. It was hardly the place or time to start shooting.
“It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism.”
We tend to agree with that. Many of the judgments being aimed at Zimmerman reflect the same kinds of “thinking” that have driven the thinking of mobs and tribes all through the annals of time.
Through the sweep of our brutal American history, white racists were allowed to act on their judgments in especially repugnant ways. But the process of simple-minded typological judgment remains the same all over the world when members of tribes make simple-minded snap judgments about members of other tribes.
Time after time, members of the liberal world has been stunningly simple-minded in the past few weeks. We “liberals” can be dumbasses too, and we seem determined to prove it.
Saletan rejects the Group Story, and yet its pull seems strong. In the absence of further information, we would be inclined to reject the basic judgments expressed here:
SALETAN (continuing directly): That doesn’t make Zimmerman a hero. It just makes him a reckless fool instead of a murderer...Was Zimmerman “a reckless fool” that night? It’s possible, depending on what he actually did, which isn't actually known.
Zimmerman is guilty, morally if not legally, of precipitating the confrontation that led to Martin’s death. He did many things wrong. Mistake No. 1 was inferring that Martin was a burglar. In his 911 call, Zimmerman cited Martin’s behavior. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around” looking at houses, Zimmerman said. He warned the dispatcher, “He’s got his hand in his waistband.” He described Martin’s race and clothing only after the dispatcher asked about them. Whatever its basis, the inference was false.
Mistake No. 2 was pursuing Martin on foot. Zimmerman had already done what the neighborhood watch rules advised: He had called the police. They would have arrived, questioned Martin, and ascertained that he was innocent. Instead, Zimmerman, packing a concealed firearm, got out and started walking after Martin. Zimmerman’s initial story, that he was trying to check the name of the street, was so laughable that his attorneys abandoned it. He was afraid Martin would get away. So he followed Martin, hoping to update the cops.
But even as he rejects the standard story, Saletan seems to bow to its power. Was Zimmerman “a reckless fool” when he got out of his truck?
Consider what that judgment seems to imply:
According to the Standard Story, Zimmerman became responsible for what occurred when he got out of his truck. This represents a remarkable judgment:
If a black teen has been seen in the neighborhood, you have to stay behind locked doors! With that kind of obvious danger around, you can’t walk through your own neighborhood!
That is a stunning precept. Newsflash: People are allowed to walk through their neighborhoods! People are even allowed to walk through other people’s neighborhoods.
In feudal Europe, you couldn’t do that. In this country, it’s done all the time.
The idea that Zimmerman shouldn’t have walked through his own neighborhood takes us to an uglier time. It takes us to an ugly perception:
Young black males are so dangerous that you can’t even go outside if a young black male is nearby!
As it turned out, getting out of his truck that night led to a disaster. But what exactly makes us judge that he shouldn’t have done it? It’s possible that Zimmerman did something provocative, ugly or even illegal before or during his encounter with Martin.
But in no way has that been shown. In fact, you are allowed to get out of your truck and walk through the world, even if Those People are near.
“Mistake No. 1” may be even stranger. In that passage, Saletan seems to say that Zimmerman did something “morally wrong” when he “infer[ed] that Martin was a burglar.”
Did Zimmerman “infer that Martin was a burglar?” It seems clear that he suspected that Martin was up to no good. Basically, that's what he told the dispatcher.
Assuming that this suspicion was mistaken, is it really “morally wrong” to engage a false suspicion? People are wrong in such judgments all the time. In and of itself, that isn’t normally seen as a moral failure.
Was Zimmerman crazy in forming his suspicion? Like Saletan, we have no way of knowing; that would largely depend on what Martin may have been doing. As Saletan notes, Zimmerman told the dispatcher at one point that Martin approached the car with “his hand in his waistband.”
Did that happen? We have no way of knowing. Presumably, though, that would mean that Martin was pretending to have a gun. If Martin did behave that way, was it crazy to be suspicious of his larger intentions?
Why did Zimmerman get out of his car? We can’t tell you that.
What was Martin doing, if anything, that caught Zimmerman's eye? We can’t answer that either.
Here’s the problem: Saletan can’t know these things either! But he seems ready to stampede off into a harsh moral judgment.
Our view? If Zimmerman really was concerned about Martin, it was unwise to get out of the car. Inevitably, the fact that Zimmerman was armed added to the possibility of a disaster.
(Others will say that this may explain why Zimmerman is still alive.)
That said, by normal standards, it simply isn’t a reckless act to walk through the streets where you live. In this case, the decision to do so turned out very poorly. But is Saletan really prepared to say it was morally wrong?
If he is, might he be in the grip of the Standard Group Judgment he says he has rejected?
We don’t know what Zimmerman did that night. But if he simply walked through the grounds trying to see where Martin went, he was engaged in conduct which is thoroughly legal. It is also thoroughly normal to walk around where you live. Or do we want to return to a controlling notion from long ago:
If a young black male has been seen in the area, please do not get out of your car! Be sure to stay behind locked doors until the threat is gone!
That is a repulsive notion. In our view, it reeks from the pages of screeching liberals who want to see Zimmerman burn.
As we’ve mentioned many times, we white liberals just don’t seem to like black kids very much. In our view, we white liberals have made this clear for many years. mainly through our complete disinterest in pursuing or even discussing their interests.
Sorry. But we smell that smell in the recent wave of screeching pseudo-liberal concern.
This country is full of decent, admirable, deserving black kids. We see kids like that every day. because of the way they persevere and advance, we admire those kids a great deal.
This country is full of kids like that. Until a good witch trial blows up, you can’t make white liberals say so.