Commentary: When it comes to race, we pick our own truths

The Kansas City StarMarch 31, 2012 

Which version sounds like the truth?

• A white male vigilante stalked an unarmed black teenager and shot him dead.

• A black young man, suspiciously wandering around, is shot after he attacks a neighborhood watchman.

Careful. The choice can say less about established fact and more about what you want the facts to be.

The still-emerging details surrounding the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin showcase a shallowness of human nature in uncomfortable ways. At least it should be uncomfortable.

People are pitching their versions of events in the Florida shooting, facts be damned.

The code seems to be “Tweet first, ask questions later.”

People of all races and ethnicities are prone to playing this sorry game when crime is entwined with race.

As new information came forward this week about Trayvon’s suspension from school, the outcry from some quarters was fast and consistent.

Gotcha! As if the additional background on Trayvon confirmed what some people already deeply suspected, maybe even needed to believe: that Trayvon, the black youth, was up to no good.

In the same vein, the information about George Zimmerman’s heavy dialing of 911, reporting everything from trash to potholes, and his past brush with the law, provided evidence to others of his guilt.

Zimmerman maintains he acted in self-defense. And there are now conflicting witness statements about who attacked first.

The news people hear is often absorbed through the prism of past experiences, impressions and biases — conscious or not.

That’s one reason the first accounts of Trayvon’s death resonated firmly with the black community. Many families are painfully aware that young black men are often regarded as suspicious, no matter what their attire.

New information reveals more about both Zimmerman and Trayvon. But none of it offers a clear view of what happened between the two before Trayvon died.

This is why responsible news articles are heavily laced with “according to police reports,” “police said” and “allegedly.”

Problem is, that careful language is easily overshadowed by screaming blog postings, entertainers on radio and TV, people with agendas, poor reporting and the Web’s ability to give stature to myth.

Here’s another disturbing trend bubbling up from the week of heavy news coverage of the Trayvon shooting.

Another view wants equal time. This one demands headlines about black people targeting white people.

The unsolved case of the 13-year-old burned with gasoline in the east portion of Kansas City is the most often raised locally.

For weeks, Star editors, reporters and columnists have been inundated with claims of a coverup, that the limited stories are due to the “liberal media” hesitancy to describe a hate crime by black people on a white person.

Wrong. It’s because the police investigation does not support that theory.

Police say the teenager was not “doused” with gasoline, as many people insist. And nothing he told police in his February initial interview, or in a follow-up meeting with a detective, supports the belief that it was a bias attack, police said.

The young man told police that both of his attackers were older black youth. That doesn’t make it a hate crime.

“There are still a lot of holes we are trying to fill in,” said police spokesman Capt. Steve Young.

According to the initial police report, the young man said he was followed home from school and one attacker physically prevented him from entering his home. The other suspect grabbed a red gas can and said, “This is what you get.”

The victim reported that the attacker dropped the gasoline can on the ground as he tried to light it, spilling gas which he then lit, producing a large fireball. The report also says police noted what appeared to be burns on the young man’s face and his singed hair.

“A case is driven by facts,” Young said. “But when you have a case that has taken on a life of its own outside of the investigation and becomes filled with misinformation, it certainly doesn’t make things easy.”

Police continue to investigate.

Is this a horrible episode for the teenager and his family? Of course. Not just the burns, but the unresolved nature of the case.

But swirling speculation, and the public’s unwillingness to think past ingrained beliefs, can get in the way of an investigation.

Take a story in Grandview that leaned heavily on the idea that Latinos are being targeted for hateful attacks.

Last October, a 14-year-old boy of Mexican descent was beaten, his face bruised and swollen.

For a short period, the story circulated on Facebook that Grandview police had beaten the young man. That falsehood simmered down when the young man told police and several news outlets that he had been jumped by a group of older white men as he was walking home from a skate park. The teenager said he was called ethnic slurs.

RACISM! The accusation was blogged and distributed by listservs in capital letters. Only a few people posted notes to be careful, that all of the facts were not known. Bravo to those thoughtful souls.

The young man’s battered face appeared in TV newscasts and in the local Hispanic press.

Here’s the update: Grandview police have issued a stop order for an African-American man in another state who they believe beat the teenager. Others, of mixed and various races, have come forward as witnesses. One man confessed to holding the young man down.

The assault did not occur on a street, but in a residence, said Maj. Brent Miller.

“He’s a 14-year-old kid who really took a beating,” Miller said. “He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”

But the young man is sticking to his story of the white attackers. Police think he is scared, has been threatened and is reluctant to recant a sympathetic story.

Miller said authorities want to prosecute. “But without the victim’s help, we aren’t going to be able to.”

Time may help, police believe. If a confession can be gained from the main assailant, it might change the dynamic.

And time will likely offer more clarity to the events of Trayvon’s death.

For now, no one but Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman knows exactly what happened. And Trayvon can’t speak for himself.

The rest of us can choose to remain open-minded, or we can ferret around between fact and fiction attempting to build a version of truth that feels comfortable.

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