Posted on May 21, 2012

Black-on-White Crime and the Reasons for a Media Double-Standard

Bob Cesca, Huffington Post, May 16, 2012

Last week, my friend and podcast partner Chez Pazienza wrote a piece about a case involving several African American youths in Norfolk, Virginia, who allegedly beat up a pair of reporters from the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, Dave Forster and Marjon Rostami. Forster happens to be white and Rostami is Iranian. I hastened to mention the races of everyone involved because it applies to the rest of the story. The incident went largely unnoticed in the press, mainly because the the Virginian-Pilot only published news of the incident in the form of a opinion piece written by Michelle Washington two weeks later. There’s another reason it wasn’t covered by the Pilot, and I’ll get to that shortly.


In a way, both O’Reilly and Chez are correct. In a way. There’s absolutely a double-standard because the crimes — the Trayvon Martin case and the Forster/Rostami case — are vastly different in almost every way and should, therefore, be treated with vastly different coverage. They’re different in terms of outcome, they’re different in terms of details and each have very different historical and contemporaneous contexts.

The truth is, not every white-on-black crime is given Trayvon Martin-level coverage. Not by a long shot. So why was there so much outrage swirling around Trayvon?

Let’s do the list.

First, Trayvon was a kid walking through a white neighborhood armed with nothing but snacks. Second, Trayvon was shot and killed. Third, and most suspiciously, law enforcement released George Zimmerman without charging him with any crimes, and Zimmerman was allowed to keep his firearm. Fourth, there’s a sinister gun violence meets gun control meets NRA component here. Fifth, there appeared to be details that the Sanford police were withholding from the public, making it seem like yet another example of whites covering-up a white-on-black crime. Sixth, there’s evidence of racial profiling by Zimmerman. And finally, and most importantly, the historical context is far more complicated when it comes to white-on-black crime, as well as the white presumption of African American guilt when the racial roles are reversed. More on that presently.

Meanwhile in Virginia, even though the attack was clearly traumatic for Foster and Rostami, they weren’t hospitalized nor did they receive medical treatment for their minor injuries. There’s no evidence of racial profiling — in other words, there’s no evidence that the attack was racially motivated and it probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Forster hadn’t jumped out of his car to confront the youths. Even though a rock hit Forster’s car window, the window doesn’t appear to have been shattered. And the police have already arrested a kid for throwing the rock, while there are warrants out for another assailant. Again, while traumatic, it’s a far cry from the ugliness and inexplicable mysteries of the Trayvon case. No potential cover-ups. No fatalities. No serious injuries. The initial characterization by Michelle Washington and Drudge that “hundreds” of black teens wantonly beat a white couple (only “a handful” were involved), hospitalizing them, while their car was trashed appears to be highly exaggerated because, if true, the injuries wouldn’t be nearly as minor and, as it turns out, the reporters drove their own vehicle home that night and voluntarily declined to be named in a news story. {snip}

Chez wrote: “O’Reilly may be a pompous buffoon, but I dare anyone to challenge his assertion that were the races reversed in the case in Virginia — had it been a group of white people who attacked an African-American man and woman in their car — it would’ve been the lead on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show every night since the day it happened.”

Given the details and the minor “simple assault” nature of the fracas, and contrary to what Chez wrote in support of O’Reilly, it’s questionable whether Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson would care about it at all. It’s a relatively nothing case, especially contrasted against the gory details of the Trayvon Martin shooting.


But let’s say, yes, if the incident in Norfolk had been more serious, maybe with a fatality, and let’s say the races had been reversed — a group of whites fatally attacking an African American couple — the coverage would probably have been appropriately huge. And here’s why. In addition to the hypothetically fatal crime itself, there’s a considerably wicked history in America of white racism, oppression and violence against black people, which, to an extent, continues today. It’s the historical and contemporaneous context that ultimately changes how these stories are, and should be, covered.

Black people are thirteen percent of the American population — therefore members of the minority race beating up two members of the majority race is quite different in a societal sense than a member of the majority race shooting the minority race in apparent cold blood. White-on-black crime comes from a position of power. The opposite — the minority oppressing the majority — is impossible.


These injustices are the context for the activist-perception and reporting of crimes like the Trayvon Martin killing and it only just begins to explain why there was such outrage generated around those proceedings. The Trayvon shooting and the handling of the case by law enforcement smelled all too familiar, and the past must not be repeated here. And so a line was drawn in the sand by activists and media personalities. Not again. Not now.

To be clear, none of these historical realities exculpates the crimes committed in Norfolk or Sanford or wherever. A crime is a crime and the people responsible for attacking Forster and Rostami should be arrested and charged (one person is already in custody). But this exhaustively lengthy context begins to explain why the crimes occur and how/why they’re covered. If the press is a little tentative about covering black-on-white crime, especially when it’s a minor non-fatal assault like the Forster/Rostami case, we can begin to understand why with the proper background. We can also understand, given all of these reasons, why a white-on-black crime might harken back to any of the countless atrocities committed against blacks by the white-dominated American power structure and, subsequently, we can also understand why African American activists like Al Sharpton and others are outraged when it happens. It makes complete sense given the prologue of the past.

Yes, there’s a double-standard. And until there’s full equality and the long slow process of racial healing is completed, the double-standard has to remain.