As regular readers of Roger’s Rules know, I do not often read our former paper of record. The only time I tend to encounter the New York Times in propria persona is when I visit friends in Northwest Connecticut. Being an early riser, I motor down to a local emporium to collar the papers and the needful for breakfast. Since this happens only every few months, my view of the paper’s devolution is dramatized by a sort of time-lapse effect. If you were subjected to the paper day in and day out, I reckon you wouldn’t notice the degradation quite so vividly.
Consider “Young, Black, Male, and Stalked by Bias,” an op-ed by Brent Staples. Here’s how the piece opens:
The door to the subway train slides open, revealing three tall, young black men, crowding the entrance, with hooded sweatshirts pulled up over downward-turned faces; boxer shorts billowing out of over-large, low-slung jeans; and sneakers with the laces untied.
Your response to the look — and to this trio on the subway — depends in part on the context, like the time of day, but especially on how you feel about young, male blackness.
If it unsettles you — as it does many people — you never get beyond the first impression. But those of us who are not reflexively uncomfortable with blackness . . .
Got that? If you are unsettled by thuggish looking teenagers who happen to be black, you are racist. “Young black men,” says Staples, “know that in far too many settings they will be seen not as individuals, but as the ‘other,’ . . .” Here’s a piece of advice for Brent Staples: if you want to be treated with respect, dress and act in a way that invites it. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, yellow, or polka-dotted: if you dress in a minatory way, people—if they are sane—will regard you with suspicion.
“Society’s message to black boys,” continues Staples, is “ ‘we fear you and view you as dangerous.’ ” No: society’s message to black, white, and yellow boys is “if you act in a way that seems threatening, we will view you as threatening.”
Quoth Staples: “the toxic connotations that the culture has associated with blackness have been embedded in thought, language and social convention for hundreds of years.” Wrong again, Brent. The “toxic connotations” have to do with the toxic behavior of certain segments of the population. When Jesse Jackson hears footsteps behind him, looks around, and feels relieved when he sees the person behind him is white, it is not because he is racist but because the instinct for self-preservation has not been entirely bred out of him.
Brent Staples’s aria about evil racial stereotypes—so evil that many well-meaning people are unconscious of how their attitudes and behavior are influenced by them—is all a prelude to some spectacularly irresponsible animadversions about George Zimmerman. “By the time he went on neighborhood watch patrol with his 9-millimeter pistol and spied Trayvon Martin,” says Staples,
Mr. Zimmerman saw not a teenager with candy [“candy” is a nice touch], but a collection of preconceptions: the black as burglar, the black as drug addict, the black “up to no good.” And he was determined not to let this one get away.
Question: how does Brent Staples know what George Zimmerman saw or thought? He doesn’t. He is just making it up. And the more we know about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the murkier the episode seems. The man whom the Times branded a “white Hispanic” turns out to have been a conscientious good citizen who donated much time to public good works, including tutoring young black kids for free. In his hysterical campaign against the sin of un- or semi-conscious racism, Brent Staples liberally deploys insidious racialism to make a scapegoat of a man he knows nothing about. “Young, Black, Male, and Stalked by Bias” is all of a piece with the Times’s other reporting on race: whites are guilty until proven innocent, at which point they are still guilty of being white, but blacks get every benefit of every doubt, up to and including being employed by the paper’s editorial page not for merit but for skin color. It’s a case of the not-so-soft bigotry of racialist expectations. Brent Staples is indeed “stalked by bias,” but it turns out that it’s his own bias, underwritten partly by reflexive racialism, partly by stupidity.