The Tangled Web of Race

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

A number of commentators have openly sympathized with multi-murderer Christopher Dorner, who shot seven innocent people, killing four of them. Apparently, the late Dorner was a voice in the wilderness crying out against the racist injustice of the “system.” His brief killing career, in the reprehensible words of Fox News commentator Marc Lamont Hill, was “exciting” for many people — almost like “watching Django Unchained in real life.” That movie’s star, Jamie Foxx, had joked of his stint as a Quentin Tarantino big-screen hero gunman, “I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”

In print, and on radio and television, we are presented with bizarre themes like “Understanding Chris Dorner,” and comparisons with “Superman” in Dorner’s effect upon his admirers. Dorner, a leftist doppelgänger of Timothy McVeigh, did not just go on the attack against his hated southern-California law-enforcement community, but he also wrote a rambling, narcissistic, and self-serving diatribe that the Left gleefully elevated with the Marxian sobriquet “manifesto.” But in truth, the scribbling was no more than a pathetic rant that mentioned everything except why a police board, an internal appeals board, and the courts all independently found him culpable of lying as charged, and thus upheld his firing for baselessly smearing a female superior.

Dorner’s hate-filled diatribe, which frequently self-references Christopher Dorner as a gossip columnist, revealed him to be incoherent, half-educated, and racist in his stereotyping of Latinos, Asians, and whites. His later crimes reified his abstract hatred: His chief complaint was against his Asian-American lawyer, who, Dorner claims, inadequately pressed his appeal. The first victims of his rage against a supposedly anti-minority police department, then, were the lawyer’s daughter and her mixed-race fiancé.

Dorner was apparently aware that in modern state employment, the charge of racism can be an effective antidote for career disappointment. But he was also clearly frustrated by the race and gender complexity of southern California. He lived in a city that is governed by a Mexican-American mayor and that is one of the largest cities of Mexican nationals in the world. Worse still for Dorner, he was employed by a police department in which he routinely was evaluated by women, many of them apparently lesbian, as well as Latinos, Asians, and whites. The old Rodney King white/black-oppression paradigm had become less resonant, and that disappointment showed in the baffled manner in which Dorner indicted his peers, cooked up supposed racially motivated harassment incidents, lashed out at his rivals, and finally killed innocent people of all races.

Nonetheless, some on the left have done their best to make the cowardly (is not coolly gunning down an unarmed woman and her fiancé the work of a coward?) Dorner into a modern Nat Turner. But that is a stretch, when his hated establishment is as much non-white as it is white — and when the evidence of Dorner’s own lying and ill intent was far more persuasive to disinterested judges and boards of various sorts than were Dorner’s fantasies that his character failings were not his own.

The other great racial cause célèbre of the past year was, of course, the Trayvon Martin case. Here too, as in the prior Duke-lacrosse matter, there was a zealous effort to turn unlikely circumstances into touchstones of contemporary racism, and by extension to add a few more embers to the sputtering fire of racial complaints against society at large. Implicit in postmodern America is the understanding that falsely alleging racism not only earns little opprobrium, but establishes the narrative that if racism was not the culprit it could have been. A half-century after the flowering of the civil-rights movement, for Trayvon Martin to become iconic and to serve larger agendas, a number of adjustments to the facts, as in the Dorner case, were necessary.

First and most notorious, the shooter George Zimmerman, half-Peruvian and of mixed ancestry, had to be rebranded as a “white Hispanic.” The media would never think of typecasting Bill Richardson as a “white Hispanic,” let alone of referring to Barack Obama as a “white African-American.” Zimmerman’s 911 call was selectively edited and replayed in such a way as to suggest that he was fixated on an African-American suspect. By the same token, pictures demonstrating the full extent of Zimmerman’s injuries were largely ignored, as were some of Martin’s prior disturbing communications and the bothersome details of his student career.

Until the trial, we will not know exactly what happened that evening between Zimmerman and Martin, but we already do grasp that the media and the larger popular culture were intent on using the tragedy to insist that white-on-black violence is both ubiquitous and driven by racism — and that the confrontation was not the unfortunate product of the everyday friction of a multiracial society, in which, to the degree that race is a relevant statistic in such crimes, the ratio between black-on-white and white-on-black violence is about 39 to 1. No matter — even the president saw an opening and indulged in a bit of inappropriate pre-trial pop-editorializing, suggesting that the son he never had would have looked like Trayvon Martin. Bill Clinton, at a similar time of racial polarization, would have rightly been damned had he sighed that the second daughter he never had would have resembled the blonde Nicole Simpson.

Not long ago, Bob Dylan, killing time before a concert, was seen walking on a deserted street in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was not recognized by local police as a celebrity, but rather appeared to be someone suspicious enough to be detained for some police questioning. The surprised Dylan shrugged it off as a case of mistaken identity or understandable police concern. There was no national outrage that the reactionary police would dare harass a Sixties pop icon. Yet when similar confusion led to Harvard professor Skip Gates’s being temporarily held by police, it became a national scandal that elicited commentary from the president of the United States about the alleged stereotyping by law enforcement in general and the stupidity of the Cambridge police in particular.

The rationalization for all this asymmetry is the long history of racism and the persistence of white privilege, which mean that even in 2013 we simply cannot hold everyone to the same standard. Violence and incarceration rates for young African-American males are soaring. Conservatives largely attribute the tragedy to the erosion of the black family (especially the staggering illegitimacy rates and the absence of fathers from most homes, brought on by welfare dependency), to a popular culture that glorifies youth violence, and to a general reluctance by the black leadership to talk candidly about the roots of the problem. Liberals largely cite racism, social indifference, unfair drug laws and sentencing patterns, and too few federal programs. In the void between these two vastly different views, whites, both liberal and conservative, have tended to avoid talking about the violence of the inner city and have tuned out of racial discussions, which blacks have cited (“a nation of cowards”) as proof of their racism.

But the Dorner and Martin cases suggest that the old racial binaries are fossilized and increasingly irrelevant. The United States is now a multiracial society, an inter-married society, and an integrated society, in which racial identity is each year more confusing. As we have seen with Elizabeth Warren and Ward Churchill, race is becoming a construct frequently used by elites for purposes other than their concern for the general welfare.

Racial victimization is only with difficulty proven on the basis of skin color. E.g., why does the rather dark daughter of a second-generation Pakistani-American not deserve affirmative action of the sort routinely accorded to the rather light son of a third-generation Latino-American? Had Zimmerman Hispanicized his name, and appeared to the press as, say, Jorge Zapata, would he have been accorded immunity?

We live in a confused society where Somali Muslim immigrants fight African-Americans in Minnesota schools; where the African-American community of Compton, California, is targeted by Latino gangs; where Asian and “white Hispanic” youths who scream “USA” at high-school basketball games or wear flag-themed clothing to school are presumed guilty of racism against Latinos. That is the world that befuddled Christopher Dorner and helped reduce him to the incoherence of resorting to the old white/black binary, where there was far more to be had than in LA’s confusing cauldron of contemporary tribal spoils. The lesson about southern-California law enforcement in the Dorner case was not proof of racism, but a disturbing incompetence that led not only to the police being fooled for days about Dorner’s whereabouts, but also to the shooting of two innocent people and the near shooting of a third — two Latinos and a white — on the premise that they fit the description of the wanted Dorner.

Finally, a new generation of Americans has come of age in an era when affirmative action, not Jim Crow, is the establishment norm. It is hard to demonstrate to the lower-middle-class white male at CSU Bakersfield that his supposed 24/7 privilege must be countered by affirmative action accorded to wealthier Latinos or Asians at Stanford — as wealth and poverty, and minority and majority status, are no longer predictable on the basis of racial and ethnic identity.

Unmentioned is the strange phenomenon of de facto white affirmative action — the old-boy/old-girl network of New York and Washington elites, who get their kids into Sidwell Friends or Exeter as boot camp for Yale or Princeton, either by an opportune phone call or by the sort of lifelong neurotic prepping that only contacts and money can provide. That results in the spectacle of the nearly all-white New Republic seeking absolution for its apartheid by publishing an article on Republicans’ supposed lack of interest in minorities, or the mostly white-male Obama White House staff feeling exempt from the ramifications of their own rhetoric and ideology. The more a Chris Matthews foams on television about racism and privilege, the more one can excuse his own mostly separate and unequal existence. How odd that some minorities such as Marco Rubio, Allen West, Clarence Thomas, and tens of thousands of other conservatives are somehow deemed less authentic than elite whites who merely profess a particular sort of empathy for minorities.

The Left is confused about how to resurrect America’s old racial paradigms. Absurdity follows, as that Trayvon Martin must have been shot down “like a dog” by a “white Hispanic” vigilante. Christopher Dorner must be a modern-day Toussaint Louverture driven to understandable murder of the white oppressor, who turns out to be Asian. Instead of To Kill a Mockingbird, our generation is left with the flat psychodrama of Skip Gates donating the plastic handcuffs he wore for a few minutes to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Amid all this chaos, we look for guidance to the president who promised that his own mixed heritage and long toil on the front lines of racial tension would temper passions. Instead, from Skip Gates to Trayvon Martin to “punish our enemies,” Barack Obama so far has proven a reactionary of the first order.

©2013 Victor Davis Hanson

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