Conservative media have seized on the killing of an Australian student in Oklahoma by three local teenagers as racially motivated.
Twenty-two-year-old Christopher Lane, a student at East Central University, was shot dead in Duncan, Okla., on Aug. 16. Lane’s death has drawn national attention because the teenage suspects allegedly told police that they shot him because they were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Many Australian press reports have focused on the easy availability of firearms in the United States.
Conservative media, however, have honed in on the argument that the three suspects are black and the victim is white. In fact, one of the suspects is white, an official from the Stephens County District Attorney’s office told MSNBC Wednesday. “That is not the case,” the official said when asked whether all three suspects were black. “One is black, one is half-black, half-white, the other is white.” Conservative media appear to have relied on an erroneous report in the Australian media about the identity of the suspects. Right-wing outlets have since singled out tweets from one of the suspects that include derogatory language aimed at white people.
Local officials have not presented evidence yet that the killing was related to or based on race, but for many conservative outlets, the assumed race of the suspects was proof enough that Lane’s killing was racially motivated. National Review posted a since-uncorrected summary to an Australian news site wrongly identifying the suspects with the headline, “Three Black Teens Kill White College Student; Racial Grievance Industry Silent.” As Mediaite columnist Tommy Christopher noted, Fox News aired a Fox and Friends segment Wednesday morning erroneously identifying all three suspects as black and asking why Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama hadn’t spoken out.
As Christopher also noted, Daily Caller blogger Sean Medlock, who writes under a pseudonym, wrote a post titled “black teenagers kill white jogger for sport.” Medlock initially posted a picture first published by an Australian media outlet that wrongly identified the white suspect as black. Although Medlock has since posted an image with the correct identifying information, he has not altered his headline or corrected the post.
Referring to Obama’s remarks following the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Townhall columnist Katie Pavlich identified the suspects as black and asked sarcastically, “If Obama had a son, would he look like Chris Lane?” Pavlich later corrected her post. Obama’s remarks about Martin, which set off another conservative firestorm in 2012, were intended as a gesture of sympathy towards black parents who fear their children may be mistakenly profiled as criminals and harmed as a result.
Even after learning that one of the suspects was white, conservative media insisted the killing must have been motivated by anti-white racism. “They got bored and said, ‘Let’s go shoot a white guy!’ Folks, I gotta tell you, there’s something else about this. This is Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners Wednesday. “No matter where you look in the media, it’s not a racial event. Nothing about it is racist. This is the epitome of media irresponsibility.”
Limbaugh, along with conservative media maven Matt Drudge, has been diligent in highlighting instances of violence with white victims since Obama took office, incidents seen as part of a trend he blames on the president. “[I]n Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” he said after one incident in 2009.
Limbaugh’s remarks also underscore how the right has been seeking to elevate Lane’s shooting as a point of contrast with media coverage of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed during a confrontation with George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., last year. Zimmerman, who said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him, was acquitted in July of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Conservatives see media coverage of the Martin case as having been unjustifiably sympathetic to the dead teenager and his family.
Much of the initial public outrage regarding Martin’s shooting had to do with the lack of charges against Zimmerman. Unlike the suspects in the Oklahoma shooting, Zimmerman was not initially charged with any crime. Martin was shot in February of 2012; Zimmerman was initially let go by Sanford police based on lack of evidence and not charged until April. According to the charging document filed by local prosecutors in Oklahoma, the three suspects were found and apprehended hours after Lane’s death and charged the next day.
Martin’s death left many in the black community feeling that Martin had been profiled based on race, something Zimmerman has denied doing, and that the initial failure to arrest Zimmerman was based on a sense that Martin’s life was not valued because he was black. If incorrect, that feeling is nevertheless motivated by centuries of American history that include chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” Obama said shortly after Zimmerman was acquitted.
On the one hand, that prism includes a history of institutionalized racism against black people that went on for most of the republic’s existence. On the other, Obama’s been president for five years and conservatives don’t like him much. In some corners of the parallel universe of conservative media and talk radio, these experiences are roughly equivalent narratives of harrowing racial oppression, except we haven’t overcome the latter yet.