Friday, November 5, 2010

Accepting The Lie Even As You Fight For Truth

It's rare that I criticize the same media source twice in so close a time frame, but Ta-Nanehisi Coates has struck again with another highly inflammatory quote hidden in the middle of a piece on policing, worse than his attempt at attributing what he imagined to be Malcolm X's gender position into a statement about Malcolm's definitive thoughts regarding women.

The first paragraph of the piece is fine, but the second paragraph is where Coates starts going off the rails. First, he inexplicably states that he initially ignored reports of NYPD engaging in disproportionately stopping and frisking Blacks and Latinos to meet citation quotas (and the story of a NYPD officer who alleges he was institutionalized for failing the meet quota). After this puzzling confession, Coates suddenly (and even more inexplicably) states "If [B]lacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes [in New York City], it stands to reason they'll be overrepresented among the stop and frisks." There are huge sections of New York City that are almost entirely white (particularly in Staten Island and Queens), so how could anyone with any remote understanding of the demographics there believe that Black and Latino offenders comprise the majority of criminal acts *committed* in New York City (as opposed to the number or arrests or convictions, which are controlled by the discretion of officers who arrest and prosecutors who file charges)?

Starting a hypothetical with the words "If blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes..." is as wildly unprovable as starting a hypothetical with the words "If the government ships in all the drugs...". One is a widely accepted and unproven stereotype and the other is a mass-media derided and unproven conspiracy theory. Coates, as a mainstream journalist, would never proffer the latter premise, but is comfortable proffering the former. Why? No study has definitively proven that Blacks (capital B, by the way, Mr. Coates) and Latinos commit most of the crimes in any American city, because there is no reliable way to track every crime committed in any geographical area. Any impartial (read: non-racialized) observer is intelligent enough to realize (1) that crime includes every act prohibited by local, state and federal statutes in a locality and (2) that in New York City, Blacks and Latinos could not possibly comprise the majority of the people violating those statutes, which criminalize everything from insider trading to jaywalking. So, why would Coates present such a ludicrous hypothetical?

When confronted on the issue in the comments section, Coates confessed that "obvious falsehoods crept into my thinking", but he does not endeavor to explicitly state the falsehood of the claim that "Blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes [in NYC]", nor does he explain the (perhaps more troubling) issue of how this falsehood crept into his thinking at all.

These questions don't even begin to reach larger societal questions, such as how such a falsehood could be presented, without stating that it was false, in a piece on a respected media site. Or how none of the persons who commented on the piece (present company excluded) responded to the presence of such a bold-faced lie or challenged it, despite a massive number of responses.

Update: He banned me from the comment section after I thoroughly, yet politely, deconstructed the shortcomings of his piece there. My response that was deleted and apparently led to me being banned went as follows:

The post is weakened by your explicit failure to *explicitly* note that the statement "Blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes in NYC" is a falsehood. The piece would be strengthened considerably if you noted that in brackets somehow. Otherwise, your piece presents, unchallenged, the same falsehood that leads to disproportionate arrest and prosecution of Black and Latino citizens in New York, feeding a monster of a lie that leads to the problem you decry as the central theme of your piece.

Absent that explicit denunciation of that statement as a falsehood, the source of your shame is also a mystery, beyond some inexplicable initial decision to ignore the first wave of reports on this story. Stating directly that Blacks and Latinos *do not* commit the majority of crimes explains why focusing inordinate police resources against these communities, out of proportion with their actual criminal activity, is both morally wrong and counterproductive to the maximum success of any crime-fighting strategy.

I just realized something: funnily enough, even in this reply, you do not explicitly state the idea that Blacks and Latinos commit the majority of the crimes in NYC is a falsehood. You just say some unnamed falsehood crept into your thinking. Sigh.

Or view it as a screenshot (oh, he didn't think I'd be able to preserve that?):

American censorship and refusal to debate, even politely, at its finest. If you can't win, find a way to stop the other side from speaking. Sad.

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