LITTLE ROCK — I have this odd, puritanical quirk. I don’t think people should run for president by pitching racially inflammatory fables to voters. Republicans or Democrats.
And no, I’m not talking about Donald J. Trump, although these days, they’re pretty much his stock-in-trade, along with crackpot conspiracy theories. This week it’s Google, the Federal Reserve and Fox News. Before that, it was the rat- and vermin-”infested” city of Baltimore and its African-American congressman, Elijah Cummings.
A friend recently directed me to an astonishingly disingenuous Wall Street Journal op-ed by Heather Mac Donald entitled “Trump Isn’t the One Dividing Us by Race.” The president, she writes, “rarely uses racial categories in his speech or his tweets.”
Jonathan Chait comments: “Given that historically, American presidents never use racial categories in their public remarks, this is a bit like saying O.J. Simpson rarely murders anybody.”
That said, I might buy Mac Donald’s argument if it read “Trump isn’t the only one dividing us by race.” He’s clearly persuaded lots of white people that they’re the real victims. At intervals, some lone demento picks up an AR-15 and massacres his imagined race enemies.
Mac Donald blames “the academic left and its imitators in politics and mass media.”
Seriously. That’s what it says.
That’s not to say we wouldn’t be better off purging the “r-word” from our political vocabularies. Calling somebody racist never leads to anything useful. It’s the contemporary equivalent of accusing them of blasphemy or the Manichean heresy — not the beginning, but the end of a conversation.
That said, what I’m about to say will result in many emails calling me exactly that. Comes with the territory.
Because sometimes Democrats definitely do contribute to the problem. I’m thinking about presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren indulging in demagogic rhetoric regarding the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, five years ago. Sen. Harris got things started with a tweet stating that “Michael Brown’s murder forever changed Ferguson and America.”
Not to be outdone, Sen. Warren doubled down: “5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times.”
Yes, Michael was unarmed. He was also 6-foot-5, 289 pounds, and had just committed a strong-arm robbery and assaulted Officer Darren Wilson in his patrol car. He’d come perilously close to taking away Wilson’s gun, and, contrary to popular myth, neither had his hands in the air signaling surrender, nor yelled, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Those things never happened.
Instead, Brown bull-rushed the cop — who had no backup — basically giving him just two choices: Shoot, or turn and run.
I know these things because the Obama Justice Department did a full-scale investigation, interviewing 40 witnesses and examining the forensic evidence before concluding that “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender.”
Wilson’s chances of subduing the powerful young man were essentially nil. The report further concluded, “There is no credible evidence to refute Wilson’s stated subjective belief that he was acting in self-defense.”
Repeat: “no credible evidence” for the “Hands up, don’t shoot” scenario that became the inspirational slogan for the otherwise admirable Black Lives Matter movement. It was based upon the oft-broadcast false testimony of Brown’s friend, who’d hidden behind a parked car where other eyewitnesses — the tragedy went down in broad daylight in a largely African-American apartment complex — said he couldn’t possibly have seen what happened.
As a former prosecutor and attorney general of California, Harris surely knows these things, just as she probably remembers U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s press conference announcing the report’s release. Warren also has no excuse. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler awarded them the maximum four Pinocchios. They probably deserved eight.
Corey Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand managed to commemorate the tragedy without using the inflammatory word “murder.”
Alas, Ferguson soon morphed into a partisan loyalty test. It became just as important for some to see poor Michael Brown as the innocent victim of a bigoted white cop as for others to depict him as a marauding black thug.
Neither stereotype fits the facts. Wilson’s no KKK man, while all accounts depict Brown as a gentle giant who’d begun experiencing messianic delusions: reporting visions of Satan fighting angels in the sky and wandering heedless in heavy traffic in the seeming belief that he couldn’t be hurt.
“Do you know who I am?” he demanded of the shopkeeper he bullied. The answer he sought probably wasn’t “Michael Brown.”
If he’d been a white suburban kid, he’d likelier have encountered a psychiatrist than a cop. It’s just a damn shame.
As for law and order, I agree with the estimable Ta-Nehisi Coates. “I do not favor lowering the standard of justice offered Officer Wilson,” he wrote. “I favor raising the standard of justice offered to the rest of us.”
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.