TALKING TO OURSELVES: Jonathan Capehart, straight outta Crimea!


Part 2—Five panelists, one point of view: In this morning’s New York Times, Jochen Bittner describes the role which has always been played, around the world, by the clan, the “race,” the tribe.

Bittner is a political editor for Die Zeit, a German weekly. In an opinion column, he reports a conversation he recently had in Crimea with a checkpoint guard, “a warlord from central casting,” who was “Serbian and a member of the Chetniks, a nationalist paramilitary.”

As it turned out, this guard had a good sense of humor. According to Bittner, here’s how the Chetnik checkpoint guard happened to be in Crimea:
BITTNER (3/18/14): He and four comrades had been called in a few days ago from Kosovo by pro-secession “Cossacks from the Don,” he said, pointing to the half-dozen grim men behind him wielding batons and Kalashnikovs while checking other incoming cars.

They had all gathered in Crimea “to protect the Russian brothers from the fascists” who, he said, wanted to take over the Black Sea peninsula. “We’re no war dogs,” the 39-year-old Bratislav insisted. “We want peace. We are just making sure nobody brings in weapons or explosives.”

Yet Bratislav mentioned another danger that worried him greatly: that other mercenaries like him might not remain so calm. Pulling a Samsung tablet from his army trousers, he showed us a website on which fighters like himself exchanged their travel plans.
Eventually, the Chetnik checkpoint artist made a grim prediction: “I tell you: Ukraine is becoming the next Yugoslavia. Only bigger.”

Will Crimea, or Ukraine itself, descend into tribal war? As he continues, Bittner describes the role which has always been played around the world by ethnicity, race, clan, nationality—by tribal true belief:
BITTNER: Just like when Yugoslavia fell apart, the people of Crimea today are being forced to choose national allegiances. Although it was clear from the start that the so-called referendum on Sunday could only lead to a union with Russia, the passion with which pro-Russians and pro-Ukrainians have been arguing for their positions has surprised both sides.

The referendum has been a catalyst for disintegration. Different cultural and ethnic identities that used to coexist peacefully already appear to be mutual threats. In the eyes of many of the 60 percent of the Crimeans who identify as Russians, it’s the Ukrainian-speaking Crimeans (roughly 40 percent of the population) who keep messing up their lives. After 20 years of, as they see it, experiments with democracy that only led to chaos, they want to return to the strong and ordering hand of Moscow. People who topple Lenin statues, they say, must hate Russian identity as a whole.

The pro-Ukrainians hit back, saying people who demean the Kiev protesters as fascists reveal their Communism-tainted authoritarian mind-set.
In such ways, dreams are created about good neighbors who quickly become Those People.

We’ll admit it! When we read Bittner’s column, we thought about Jonathan Capehart! More specifically, we thought about a couple of segments we saw him host this Sunday.

For years, Capehart played the role of Unctuous Underling on cable pundit programs. He was younger and he was black, but he was very well-dressed and extremely polite.

He was careful not to offend the older, more established figures serving on pundit panels. In this manner, Capehart slowly rose.

With the rise of MSNBC, Capehart has come to play a different role. This may be the more authentic Capehart, but he’s now a reliable tribal player, a fellow who will always express The Standard View which defines the scripts of an emerging “press corps” tribe.

That is the role in which Capehart was cast when he guest-hosted for Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC this weekend. We were struck by a discussion he led concerning a new study about the way young black men are treated and perceived.

Or something like that. Truth to tell, the study never got explained real well.

Plainly, Capehart was blown away by the study. After yet another update concerning the missing Malaysian plane, he began to explain what the “incredible” new study showed.

According to Capehart, the study couldn’t be more timely. Here’s why:
CAPEHART (3/16/14): But now, I want to turn to an incredible new report that couldn’t be more timely coming in the wake of stories involving Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

Although we are in 2014, when it comes to race, we are reminded all too frequently that it’s an area where we will still need lots of work. A new report published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and called "The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children" reminded me of this very fact.

Last year, I wrote about the rabid hate aimed at Trayvon Martin that was generated simply by my writing about him. At that time, the hateful rhetoric that Trayvon Martin was a thug who deserved to die was as strong as ever.

Some readers took issue with the photo of Trayvon that I used, especially the one that showed him to be young and fresh-faced, the one you’re looking at right now, which he was. One reader went so far as to say, to chide me for not using what he said was the up-to-date picture of Trayvon Martin.
As he started, Capehart said the study reminded him that race is “an area where we will still need lots of work.” That said, it was fairly clear that he meant something else.

He meant that race is an area where they—everyone but him—still need a lot of work.

As he continued, Capehart described one reader’s reaction to his writing about the killing of Trayvon Martin. As his voice rose, Capehart described a world in which The Others are wrong, oh so wrong, even when they semi-apologize for an error about which they still aren’t sure.

As Capehart tells his year-old tale, Capehart himself emerges as the hero:
CAPEHART (continuing directly): The only problem, this is not Trayvon Martin. This is 34-year-old hip-hop artist and actor The Game. Not only had Trayvon Martin just turned 17 when he was shot and killed, the only tattoos on his body as revealed by the medical examiner were on his right arm and left wrist.

Needless to say, instead of letting Jesus take the wheel, I let the reader have it. One would have thought that that was that.

But then the reader responded with this: “The photo was sent from someone who I believe is a trustworthy source. If that photo is not of Trayvon Martin, I apologize.”

If? Seriously? This is a term for the assumption this reader made about Trayvon Martin without even checking to see if that picture was an accurate representation. It is the insidious thing called "implicit bias.”
That can’t have been the worst exchange generated by Capehart’s writing about the killing of Martin. But one year later, Capehart was still upset with the reader who made a factual error, then quickly semi-apologized.

It doesn’t seem to enter Capehart’s mind that he too made a lot of mistakes in the discussions of this matter, although he constantly did. By definition, “bias” and “implicit bias” will always belong to The Others, much as Bittner describes.

Finally, Capehart began to explain what the new report shows. Then he introduced a four-member panel, plus the study’s author:
CAPEHART (continuing directly): Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. And those attitudes force us to have feelings about other people because of their race, ethnicity, age, even appearance.

That is exactly what this new report found, that African-American boys can be seen as less innocent than their white counterparts. And one of the most chilling findings in the report was how much more police use force against young African-American children who are under the age of 18.

The study shows that this dehumanization of young African-American boys and men is compounded by the fact that they’re often routinely estimated to be older than their actual age. These findings are among many examples that show us the struggle continues when it comes to protecting our young African-American boys and men.

At the table still, Marcus Mabry, the New York Times lead blog editor; Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an MSNBC contributor and fellow at the LBJ School at the University of Texas; Aisha Moodie-Mills, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; and co-host of Politini, which appears on NBC’s The Griot; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture.

And joining us from California is a Phillip Atiba Goff, professor of social psychology at UCLA and director of the Center for Police Inequity. Phillip is also co-author of The Essence of Innocence report.
Capehart introduced four panelists, each of whom was guaranteed to react to the study the same way he would. He also introduced Professor Goff, who had conducted the study.

Thanks to Capehart’s approach, Goff provided little information about his study. This was the full exchange about the finding concerning perception of age:
CAPEHART: So Phillip, was there a reason behind why there was such an overestimation of age when it comes to young African-American boys?

GOFF: Well, we believe there is a reason why. This is now confirming evidence that Jennifer Everhart, Sandra Graham, many other social psychologists are beginning to see, that in our minds, we represent particularly those young men that we imagine are possibly dangerous to be older than they are so that we’re essentially justifying the threat that we feel.

So, if we’re seeing them as maybe suspected of a felony, suspected of a misdemeanor, suspected of any crime, that black as opposed to white or Latino in our study, boys those folks we’re seeing as older, it justifies our threat an affirmative response to that threat.

CAPEHART: Khalil, I mean, this implicit bias is not new. I mean, all of us around this table know it. But is it helpful to have a study like this out there to educate folks on this?
“We all know this,” Capehart said, having made virtually no attempt to define what Goff’s study actually found. Once again, Capehart’s own bias (or preconception) was fairly clear:

It’s other folks who need to be “educated” about this. It isn’t people like him!

According to Capehart’s question, there seems to be a large “overestimation of age when it comes to young African-American boys.” But how large was that overestimation, according to this study? How did it compare to estimations of age of “young boys” from other groups?

Capehart never asked. On the screen, two unreadable charts flashed by. No links exist at the Harris-Perry web site.

Second question: With what sorts of “young boys” had this study been conducted? Who were the subjects of this study?

Capehart didn’t ask that question either. Casting about on-line, it seems the study was conducted with younger people of various races who were suspected of misdemeanors or felonies, though we don’t fully understand what that means either. But according to one of those charts which flashed by, the ages of “young [white] boys” suspected of misdemeanors was overestimated by more than the ages of their black counterparts.

If we read the chart right! Because Capehart wasted no time with such questions, his cable viewers—people like us—didn’t get to hear a summary of the study’s basic findings.

In a journalistic world, the person playing Capehart’s role would attempt to establish how the study was conducted and what it actually found. Eventually, he would turn to a panel whose members might have a range of instincts when it came to such topics.

That isn’t the world which is being created by the corporate suits who own and operate MSNBC. After pretending to interview the professor, Capehart turned to a handpicked panel of four pundits, each of whom reacted to the unexplained study in the same ways he did.

In effect, this was a panel of “Crimeans who identify as Russians.” No “Ukrainian-speaking Crimeans” need apply!

At this point, we’ll offer our standard bit of background:

For decades, the liberal and progressive worlds essentially slept in the woods. All through that destructive era, Capehart played the role of Subservient Underling in his panel discussions.

Through years of such faithful service, Capehart rose.

Today, a group of corporate entities are inventing pseudo-progressive news orgs. Last Sunday, Capehart played a new, largely unintelligent role in the rise of one such org.

Miracles still happen! At one point during his next segment, one of Capehart’s panelists offered a reaction which was slightly off-message. (This was a segment about Paul Ryan’s recent statement about the culture of “inner cities in particular.”)

All the analysts cheered! But for the most part, Capehart and his hand-picked band were dancing with themselves, creating the kind of tribal discussion which has led to death and destruction all over the world all through the annals of time.

On the brighter side, the channel's ratings are up in this new incarnation.

Tomorrow: That one off-message reaction. From there, it’s on to Salon!

The building of tribal consensus: Capehart devoted one segment to Goff’s study. This segment represents a case study in the creation of scripted tribal consensus.

Goff’s study barely got explained at all. But so what? To learn what to say about such studies, Crimeans can just click here.

For Capehart’s subsequent segment with the same panel, you can just click this. In such ways, We Crimeans can learn how to dance with ourselves to the sounds of our tribal consensus.


  1. Looking at the study (in which pictures were presented together with scenarios describing either misdemeanor or felony crimes and subjects were asked to estimate age), white children's ages were overestimated more than black for misdemeanors but not felony descriptions. There were three types of studies described in the paper, the last including actual police officers.

    One problem with the various studies is that there was no attempt to control for the sex or race of the participant and no analysis by race of the participant (too few African American subjects were included and subjects were nearly all women). There are well-known within-race and across-race difficulties in recognizing facial expressions and identification studies. These are generally interpreted as related to familiarity with members of one's own compared to a less familiar race, so in-group advantages (and out-group disadvantages) have been found. The decrease in accuracy for college students judging ages of black versus white children could be related to that. In no study were there more than 10% black participants. I suspect that the discrepancy for judging white ages would have been much higher had more black subjects been included in the study. Note that the white police officers showed almost no error when judging white children's ages, members of their own race. Also, police officers were almost all male and results are shown for male pictures, something women may have had more difficulty assessing.

    This does illustrate Somerby's point with his complaint about the makeup of the panel. Psychologists call this confirmatory bias. Presumably, few black participants were recruited for this study because it was exploring white racism and dehumanization of black children. There is no interest in whether black officers might misjudge white children's ages because racism is something that only goes one direction. A study that did not assume its finding in its design might have found out something interesting about the universality of misjudging the "other." This one set out to confirm white racism, so it didn't bother looking at racial attitudes of participants of other races. (Given that more police officers are male, the participants should have been male, not overwhelmingly female.) I think the study does establish its claim for felony scenarios only, but it does little to explain why this occurs and thus handicaps us in knowing what to do about it (how to eliminate such a bias).

    By the way, use of the IAT (in Study 3 of the paper) is controversial because many people who are themselves African American produce high scores for negative attitudes toward their own race, making it problematic as a proxy for racial attitude (the way it is used in this study when it is correlated with use of force).

    1. Thanks for your analysis of the study. A link would be helpful in order to allow others to easily assess the accuracy of your comments, which suggests "controversy" based on "scores" you do not document.

      That said, TDH is not covering the work in question. He conducted and presents his own case study in the behavior of a young black man. His findings: like other liberals sleeping in the woods, Capehart serves his owners well.

    2. No link is needed. The paper itself is referenced in Somerby's post. It is in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. If you use a database such as PsycInfo, type in the title "The Essence of Innocence" and you will find it. Journals charge for access unless you are a member of the American Psychological Association. To see it for free, visit a university library with a subscription to the journal. It is part of the professional literature, so it is not readily available to the public. You may be able to see a free copy by visiting the author's website, or maybe not.

      The controversy about the IAT is all over the literature. Do a similar search on IAT to find the numerous articles questioning exactly what it measures.

      This post illustrates the problem when technical studies are reported in the popular press. In this case, the study is being used to promote someone's agenda, not reported for its own sake. Personally, I think it was conducted to promote someone's agenda too, which is not the best way to advance the interests of science, or public interests in the long run. There isn't easy access to this stuff, nor is it easy to read, which makes using it to advance an agenda doubly questionable.

    3. No link is needed. Trust me. I have credentials. I am Anonymous. We are Anonymous.

    4. What is the point of linking to something that people have to pay money (typically $25+) to read? Anyone can find this themselves but you have to go to a library to see it for free.

    5. What is the point of being a douchebag?

    6. This isn't the study -- it is a press release about it.

    7. "In no study were there more than 10% black participants."

      Isn't that pretty close to the percentage of blacks in the population?

    8. That isn't how research is done. If you want to prove this is white racism, study only white people's judgments. If you want to see why this occurs, you need to study people of different races.

  2. OMB

    We just finished critiquing the last post in which BOB badly misrepresented what he described as the press being "heinously wrong" about a crime which he also describes as "heinous," the murder of Kitty Genovese.

    In that post BOB said that case and false press report "changed" the ways Americans think about themselves. He described how numerous social psychology reports were generated as a result of that urban myth. No discussion of those changes or studies to be found.

    Flaws BOB attributes to Capehart in this piece are evident and were committed by BOB in the very last piece.

    But there is one flaw Capehart did not demonstrate. Unlike BOB he did not invent the accusation which was the centerpiece of BOB's last post.

    Oh, and rather than jump off the Eiffel Tower, Capehart discussed black kids.


    1. This is more troll gibberish. Faulting Somerby for not discussing a bunch of social psychology studies (which are not the point of his post) is ridiculous. Somerby's statement that the press misreported that 38 witnesses never called 911 is documented in the two books discussed in the book review. Somerby did not make that up.

      Capehart does discuss black kids, but does he do so in a way that will benefit them or anyone else? That is the question today.

    2. Regular Somerby readers suggest he does not read the comments to his own blog because so many of his readers are dumb. He has written many posts on dumb tribal commenters whose work reflects the very kind of comment you just made.

      You start with name tribal name calling. You quickly leap to factual error.

      Somerby never said "the press misreported that 38 witnesses never called 911." And that fact is not documented in either two books. You either read poorly or invent as well as Somerby.

    3. The books explain that the 38 witnesses (or more) referred to by the police statement were the people who were interviewed after the crime when police canvassed the area. In fact two people were witnesses. One called 911 and the other said he did not want to get involved.

      If you cannot tolerate a paraphrase, you do not belong in the comments of any website.

    4. "In fact two people were witnesses."

      Where do you get that "fact"? From Bob (They Badly paraphrased) Somerby?

    5. "Somerby's statement that the press misreported that 38 witnesses never called 911 is documented in the two books discussed in the book review."

      Just on the off-chance you are capable of learning something, you couldn't call 911 in 1964.

    6. Well, he meant they misreported that nobody dialed "0" and said "Operator, get me the police!" Or suggested it. Or the books inferred it was implied.

      Honestly. It was as bad as anything Rachel does. Essentially. It is all there in black and white for any sure shot to see.

    7. "Well, he meant ...." Another effing Karnac.

    8. Excessive literalism is a sign of mental illness or brain damage.

  3. There is no interest in whether black officers might misjudge white children's ages because racism is something that only goes one direction.


  4. In High School I was 6'2" with a heavy build. People I met for the first time often thought I was 1-3 years older than I really was. I thought being tall and big made me look older, but I guess I was secretly a black man the whole time.

    1. Did people you met for the second time get your age right?

  5. "For years, Capehart played the role of Unctuous Underling on cable pundit programs. He was younger and he was black, but he was very well-dressed and extremely polite.

    He was careful not to offend the older, more established figures serving on pundit panels. In this manner, Capehart slowly rose."

    What a bunch of fatuous patronizing nonsense from a bitter guy who also gives Irishmen a bad name.

    1. What a lot of adjectives just to express hostility toward this blog writer.

  6. Black kids look old and scary to me. Should I feel bad?

  7. No. You should feel white, even older, scared and stupid.