What's Missing from the Trayvon Martin Controversy
In his most recent column, entitled “Stalked by Stupidity,” Roger Kimball has demonstrated two sad but undeniable truths about the New York Times. I suspect readers already know them, but they’re worth stating out loud since the Times’s editors reinforce them daily with new, ever more vulgar examples: (1) when it comes to race, the paper is willing to print anything so long as it bolsters The Narrative of the Evil White Society; and (2) the Times is far, far out of touch with how the average human being perceives reality.
Roger couldn’t have picked a piece that better proves the obsolescence of the phrase “newspaper of record.” Entitled “Young, Black, Male, and Stalked by Bias,” and written by someone with the aristocratic news-anchor name of Brent Staples, the op-ed begins with a thought experiment that is supposed to show us how inveterately racist we (he means whites) all are. Forgive me for making you read the following lines once again:
"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 . . ."
Since Roger has already shown, by way of common sense, why Staples’s piece fulfills proposition (1) mentioned above, allow me to elaborate on proposition (2).
It never fails: whenever our society begins cannibalizing itself in “discussions” of race and crime, the last thing to be talked about, if it’s mentioned at all, is basic human psychology. When the latest case, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, seized the news cycle, we all were shackled to the persistent narrative that what happened to Martin was racial profiling and stereotyping. Forget for a moment that every piece of evidence available to the public tells a different story. Forget for a moment, too, that we know and can demonstrate that the media have tampered with that evidence in a desperate, flailing attempt to hold on to The Narrative.
Forget all that. Nobody is talking about that three-ton elephant with the top hat and cane, his rubbery rump parked on the living-room floor: I have seen not one column, not one discussion, not one moment’s worth of the media’s increasingly irrelevant time devoted to body language and fear perception in humans.
This may have something to do with how abstract the topic is. It is not always so easy to articulate what danger looks like, but it is pretty easy to describe what it feels like. Our bodies go through very specific biochemical and neurochemical responses when we feel endangered. In the combat system I study, we are taught a color-coded system of four "levels" of danger awareness, similar to the federal government's terrorist warning system. To wit:
White - Safe. No threats or danger perceived.
Yellow - Aware. A threat or danger is possible but not present.
Orange - A threat or danger is likely. Butterflies in your stomach.
Red - Immediate danger. The fight is on.
Other systems may have more colors, or fewer, but the idea is always the same. To give concrete examples of each color-state: White would be lounging in your air-conditioned living room on a hot summer day, icy beer in hand. Unless you are paranoid, there is no reason to think you are in danger. Yellow is walking to your car in the mall parking garage. You are aware that something could happen, but not paranoid, and no threats seem present. Orange is walking in that same parking lot later at night and seeing, out of the corner of your eye, someone leering at you and following you. The mental alarm bells begin to ring; danger feels imminent. Red is when that someone pulls a knife on you.
As we progress from white to red, as it were, the biochemical response is always the same. Your heart rate goes up, you start to sweat, a wave of heat comes over you (I always feel it in my feet first), your vision gets more blurry, you lose fine motor skills. This last aspect of physiology is why it's very unlikely you'll be able to pull off fancy martial-arts moves in a real, chaotic self-defense situation: you are pretty much neurologically incapable of doing so. The blood rushes to your muscles, getting them ready for action and depriving other body systems (vision and hearing, for instance) of the energy and nutrients needed to function optimally. In what's called an adrenaline dump, your adrenal medulla releases epinephrine directly into your bloodstream, dulling your pain sensitivity but also producing side effects like uncontrollable shaking, time distortion, tunnel vision, etc.
This basic biochemistry is why deadly police shootings always leave liberals scratching their heads and wondering how the cops fired 50 rounds instead of the more progressive 2 or 3. In the middle of an adrenaline dump, it's difficult to control your trigger finger. Those same cops will probably swear they only fired one or two shots each, but an examination of their weapons afterwards always shows that they nearly emptied their magazines. Most people, myself included, have never had to point a 9mm at someone who’s charging at them with an icepick. Most people (yes, even experienced officers) will panic and start firing blindly.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned race yet. That’s because it’s irrelevant. For the average person, what produces these biochemical responses has nothing to do with a person’s skin color but everything to do with body language and other related variables.
What has been missing from all the “discussions” of race taking place over the past month or so is how body language, dress, and demeanor mix and create an image of someone that we either want to welcome or avoid. The term “racial profiling” is too often a thought-terminating cliche designed to halt any discussion of how all humans evaluate potentially dangerous situations. What most often happens is that, upon seeing someone, we react to their movement and demeanor much more than skin color. Body language and eye contact mean everything. This goes for blacks and whites and everyone else: if someone struts around (with that walk that is instantly identifiable) glaring at everyone they see, you should avoid them. They are looking for trouble. If you’re stupid enough to wander into their path because you’re afraid of being seen as “intolerant,” that’s your problem, jack.
Nobody, save for the most hardened racist, feels threatened by the black commuter on the train wearing the suit and sipping the coffee like everyone else. Everyone, however, feels threatened by the white guy with the anti-social thousand-yard stare and the Sig Rune tattoo--or the black guy with the “F*ck the Police” t-shirt and the obnoxious strut. They have chosen to craft particular images of themselves to create particular responses in others. We ought not to be surprised, therefore, when they get those particular responses. When we assess a situation for potential trouble, we are, without knowing it, calculating and considering dozens of variables--not only body language and eye contact, but location, distance, clothing style, etc.
Skin color, if it plays a part, is minor, except for those who choose to make it otherwise, such as the New York Times.