The way our discourse works: What follows strikes us as very depressing. But it’s a strong example of the way our “public discourse” now works.
Last Monday, the Washington Post published a letter from a reader who was very upset. The reader said she had been in tears as she read a recent column by Ruth Marcus.
Headline included, Marcus' column had started like this:
MARCUS (11/16/14): Cruel and unusual punishment for the autisticFor our original post on this topic, click here.
Reginald Latson’s path to solitary confinement began four years ago as he waited for the public library to open in Stafford County, Va.
Latson, known as Neli, has an IQ of 69 and is autistic. Teachers and therapists describe him as generally sweet and eager to please.
He is also a black man, now 22, who on the day in question was wearing a hoodie—which prompted a concerned citizen to call police about a suspicious person loitering outside the library.
The ensuing encounter should have been nothing more than a harassing annoyance. Instead, not surprising given the rigid thinking and “fight or flight” instincts characteristic of those with autism, it escalated after Latson refused to provide his name and was restrained by the police officer when he tried to leave.
Reginald Latson was 18 years old on the day in question. According to Marcus, his teachers “describe him as generally sweet and eager to please”—but he was wearing a hoodie that day.
For that reason, a concerned citizen called police about a suspicious person loitering outside the library. Or so Marcus said, as she started her column.
Last Monday, a letter writer railed about that citizen’s behavior. We decided to click back through Marcus’ links to see what we could learn about this case.
Alas! The Post first reported this story in July 2010, in a sympathetic profile about the difficulties faced by the parents of young people with autism. In a 1354-word report, Theresa Vargas made no mention of any hoodie being involved in this matter at all.
In March 2011, Vargas reported the matter again, nine days after Latson was found guilty of four charges, including assault of a law enforcement officer and wounding in the commission of a felony. This time, Vargas mentioned the fact that Latson had been wearing a hoodie on the morning in question.
But Vargas said nothing to indicate that the hoodie had occasioned the phone call to police—a phone call which actually came from school authorities, according to the original police report. She also noted that Latson had been convicted for behavior in an unrelated incident:
VARGAS (3/13/11): Last week, prosecutors tried Latson on a breaking-and-entering charge related to an incident in 2009. In that case, prosecutors said, Latson rang the doorbell at a teenager's home. When the teen opened the door, Latson hit him and followed him inside. Latson pleaded guilty to assault last year. On Thursday, he was found guilty of breaking and entering.Other violent incidents have occurred. Earlier this year, Latson, now 22, was found guilty in another such case.
"I'm not here to try to paint a pretty story about my son," but he is not the violent individual that Stafford authorities have depicted, said Latson's mother, Lisa Alexander. "Neli is not a danger to society. He doesn't belong in jail. He belongs at home."
Marcus may be perfectly right in her overall assessment—in her claim that young people with developmental disorders should be treated differently from other people who break the law. But in our view, her presentation of this matter was truly heinous.
She played the “arrested for wearing a hoodie” card in her first column about this incident. In doing so, she drove at least one reader to tears and spread fear about the heinous conduct directed at black youth.
It’s astounding to us that a major newspaper allows such things to occur.
Yesterday, Marcus wrote about this matter again. This time, she included more information about the various violent incidents in which Latson has been involved.
Even there, we’d have to say she put a heavy spin on these events. But we ask you to consider that original column.
We can’t tell you how Latson should be treated. We’re asking you to think about Marcus’s conduct.
In that original column, Marcus did some of the most egregious picking-and-choosing of information we have ever seen. Making matters much worse, she introduced the inflammatory claim that Latson, a sweet and gentle soul, had been reported to the police because he was wearing a hoodie.
A reader was soon in tears. An editor ran her letter under this headline: “Wearing a hoodie while black.”
People believe what they read in the Post. They should be warned about that.
For the record, levels of violence: In the incident Marcus described, a police officer was injured so badly that he had to retire. In March 2011, Vargas reported this:
“Latson's attorneys didn't dispute what had happened. Instead, they presented an insanity defense in court. They said Latson—in whom intermittent explosive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had also been diagnosed—could not control his behavior because of an ‘irresistible impulse.’”
Marcus didn't have room for that in her original column. Plus, it would have harmed her heartwarming theme.
We feel bad for young people with problems. But just compare that passage, from her own link, to the portrait Marcus drew in that original column.
Marcus was posing as the journalistic hero in that original column. Most egregiously, she was toying with a popular meme, a meme involving a hoodie.
We think her conduct was very bad, to the point of being heinous. But as everyone knows, this is the way our “discourse” increasingly works.