National Opinions

A kidnapping reopens our racial wounds – if we let it

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

It didn’t take long for the emails to arrive, as I expected.

“Chicago hate crime today against Trump!” said one. “Let’s see your column justify that one.”

He was writing about the big news of the day, the “Facebook torture case,” as some called it. It involved the kidnaping and torture – streamed live on Facebook – of a white teenager with special needs, allegedly by two 18-year-old black men and two black sisters, aged 18 and 24.

The four suspects were charged Thursday with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated unlawful restraint, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and a hate crime.

Justify?

Why would I want to “justify” such barbaric bullying? Why would I want to excuse the barbarism that compelled the youths in that video to laugh lustily as they drank alcohol, smoked blunts, cut out a piece of their victim’s scalp and force him to drink water from a toilet bowl?

I have no sympathy for the young idiots who can be heard spouting racial epithets and obscene remarks about President-elect Donald Trump and “white people” in general. They could not have produced a more effective video insult to hard-working, law-abiding black Americans if they tried.

In that vein, I brace myself whenever a high-profile violent crime committed by an African-American. I know I’m going to hear from a certain grouchy subset of trolls, energized in part by the notion that black people are getting away with too much or only getting ahead at the expense of white people.

As my Southern-born mother used to say, bless their hearts. You can’t lift yourself up, she would say, by keeping somebody else down. Yet once race enters a crime story, especially a brutally vicious crime like this one that crosses racial lines, so does an ugly brand of racial politics.

Shortly after the Facebook video spread on social media, for example, it was followed by social media comments — unsupported, it turned out — that the attackers belonged to the well-known anti-police-brutality movement known as Black Lives Matter.

The problem with that allegation is that Chicago police said there was no evidence to back it up, and DeRay Mckesson, a leading Black Lives Matter organizer, said such violent acts never have been the organization’s intention.

Yet the hashtag #BLMKidnapping continued to trend on Twitter, helped along by Glenn Beck, Twitter activists and some other voices for conventional conservatism and the “alt-right,” a snazzy new-wave label for old-school white supremacy.

After all, the more attention they put on Black Lives Matter, deserved or not, the less attention goes to the police conduct issues that the protest movement is trying to raise – ostensibly not to bash police but to improve policing.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to profit by feeding public anger, fears, resentments and suspicions. You can even win elections sometimes.

You can see evidence of today’s racial divide in polls like the one taken in November by the liberal Huffington Post and YouGov. It found that a commanding 84 percent of Hillary Clinton voters thought black people face “a lot of discrimination” in the United States today, compared to only 22 percent of Trump voters.

With such stark differences in political attitudes, it is no wonder that a July Washington Post/ABC poll found 63 percent of adults said race relations are in bad shape, up from 48 in a Pew Research survey last spring.

We would be making a mistake if we try to blame all of that on outgoing President Barack Obama, he told Jay Levine from Chicago’s CBS2 in a White House interview. It is not that racial tensions have gotten worse, he said, but smart phones and the Internet bring the ugliest episodes of different communities to a wider audience than ever before.

“I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means that we have the capacity to get better.”

Sure, he’s protecting his legacy, but he’s got a point. Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to want us to get better. They’d rather complain.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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