The story reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare, where the law seems to turn its back on someone in a way that would make Josef K. from The Trial say, Damn, I thought I had it bad. Marissa Alexander was a 31-year-old, 5-ft. 2-in. mother of three, her baby just 9 days old, living in Jacksonville, Fla., a “Stand your ground” state. Her 36-year-old husband Rico Gray was arrested in 2009 for attacking her and sending her to the hospital, after which she got a restraining order against him. In a 2010 deposition, Gray said, “We was staying together and I pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and hit her head and that’s the time I went to jail.” In the same deposition, he admits that this was not his first incident of domestic violence against women, saying, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” He also admits that he and Alexander had “four or five” episodes of domestic violence leading up the August 2010 incident that landed Alexander in prison facing a 20-year sentence.
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Watch my discussion racism on Twitter in my rant on MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show.
Watch my discussion of the Secret Service sex scandal in my rant on MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show
After a recent event where I spoke about racial identity, a white woman sidled up to me, leaned in close so no one near us could hear, and said, “I’m racist.” Many people would be repelled. I was entranced. Here was someone who could tell me first hand how the racist mind worked. Social scientists have done studies on Klansmen and Neo-Nazis but those sorts of people are outliers, socially and mentally, while this woman was the sort of person you might encounter on a normal day. She seemed indicative of the sort of racist mind we’d be mostly likely to meet. She seemed normal. So I decided to talk to her and find out how her mind worked.
Studies show most people have some sort of prejudice or bias. “Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate,” writes Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow. “The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about blacks even though you do not believe you do and do not want to.” Part of the problem is the monsoon of negative messages about blacks coming at Americans which makes being non-racist almost like mentally swimming upstream.
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Watch my discussion of Trayvon Martin’s parents and their faith in the justice system.
If you found the Trayvon Martin situation frightening, then you should find the story out of Tulsa to be a nightmare. A pair of white men, one of them angry about the murder of his father by a black man two years ago, drove through the Tulsa night early on Friday, shooting blacks at random. Two were injured, three are dead. This is hate crime serial killing. Any black person who happened to cross their path was gunned down. And it was clearly premeditated. Jake England, one of the accused, wrote this on his Facebook page earlier that night: “It just mite [sic] be time to call it quits I hate to say it like that but I’m done if something does happen tonite be ready for another funeral later.”
This is scary for so many reasons. Jake England may have seen himself enacting specific revenge but it seems there is something larger going on. Historically, after a surge in black power there is a retort, a reassertion of white power. After emancipation and Reconstruction came Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights Movement came the rise of mass incarceration, which Professor Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow” because legalized discrimination against ex-convicts means that they lose all the rights won in the Civil Rights Movement.
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The battle around the Trayvon Martin case is threatening to rip America apart, damage its soul and underline the fact that there are two Americas, separate and unequal. That’s why America needs its journalists to do their best in this moment to help America function justly. But when journalists become advocates for a perspective, does that make them unprofessional? That charge were leveled at me recently by Piers Morgan on his show, after I criticized him for not asking tougher questions in his interview with George Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman.
The notion that journalists should not have opinions is archaic. Nowadays, no one would dare end a news broadcast with a paternal and authoritative phrase like, “That’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite did decades ago. Savvy media consumers know bias exists in everyone. Someone who pretends to be completely objective is lying to you, and that’s arguably more dangerous because it’s harder to see their hidden agenda. Media bias is betrayed in all sorts of ways—by the stories we choose to cover, the order in which we cover them, the length we give them, and the perspective we favor. Journalists can have a perspective and still be responsible by searching for and incorporating facts that challenge our perspective. But we cannot, as humans, lack a perspective. It’s not that we must avoid drawing conclusions, we do all the time, it’s that we must not cling to those conclusions when facts challenge them.
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