Conservative media has declared another victim in America's covert race war: white, 88-year-old World War II veteran Delbert Belton who was allegedly beaten to death by two black teenagers in Spokane, Wash., during a robbery last week.
Shortly after seizing on the killing of Australian student Christopher Lane in Oklahoma as a racially motivated killing, right-wing commentators added Belton's death to their list.
"You know, if I had a father, he would look like "Shorty" Delbert Belton, and, if I had a son, he'd look like Chris Lane. Nobody's gonna say that. Obama has not called the parents of Chris Lane. I don't know if Obama has called anybody related to "Shorty" Delbert Belton, but these two were people killed by bored, thug-wannabe African-Americans," Rush Limbaugh told his audience Friday. "There still has been more outrage over a rodeo clown wearing an Obama mask than either of these two events combined. It's this kind of thing—this cultural rot, this decay—that you can't even address without being called a racist."
Lane was killed allegedly by three teenage suspects, who police said carried out the killing because they were "bored." Conservatives have framed Lane's death as "Trayvon Martin in reverse." That effort took a hit, however, after some conservative media sites wrongly identified all of the suspects as black, when one of them was white. Some still insisted the crime was racially motivated, even after the local district attorney said there was no evidence of that. Conservative commentator Matt Drudge, who has spent President Obama's term in office drawing attention to instances of violence involving black suspects and white victims, dealt with the discrepancy by posting pictures of only the two black suspects on his widely read website. Following Drudge's lead, conservatives have framed these incidents as acts of deliberate racial retribution, sometimes inspired or fomented by the president.
The two main suspects in the Belton killing are both black, so it's easier for conservatives to allege that the crime was motivated by race. The only problem? As with the Oklahoma shooting, there's little evidence that the crime was motivated by race. Spokane police chief Frank Straub said in a statement sent to reporters Monday: "I would like to make it very clear—the motive for this attack was robbery. Race was not a factor."
The conservative argument deposits that not only are these two incidents motivated by race, but that Obama bears responsibility for addressing the issue—and that the only possible reason for the president's silence is racial animus toward whites. On Tuesday, Obama did send condolences to the Lane family.
Here's how Fox News host Eric Bolling put it last Friday: "[W]hy are we talking about something that unfortunately happens way too frequently in America? Because we have to—because the mainstream media has chosen to go quiet on these murders, seems they prefer to report on crimes where the minorities are victims. President Obama and Eric Holder seems to weigh in only when it fits their race narrative, i.e., if I had a son—well, you know the rest."
Minutes later, Bolling complained that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wasn't up to speed on the Belton killing. The White House pressman had "no idea what they were talking about yesterday when it was all over the media," Bolling said.
Many of these complaints contrast Obama's reaction to these killings, or lack thereof, with his remarks last year about Trayvon Martin. Martin was killed in Sanford, Fla., during a confrontation with George Zimmerman in February of 2012. Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense and was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter by a Florida jury in July.
Initially, however, unlike the suspects in the Oklahoma and Washington killings, Zimmerman wasn't charged with anything. Almost a month after Martin's death, and about another month before Zimmerman was charged, Obama was asked about the incident, and said that "When I think about that boy, I think about my own kids...If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Obama was sympathizing with black parents who fear that their children could be harmed because they are more likely to be profiled as criminal suspects.
Right-wing coverage has often ignored the main discrepancy between Martin's death and the deaths of Lane and Belton, which is that the suspects in the latter cases almost immediately faced criminal charges for their actions. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker proclaimed that "riots" would ensue if unarmed black people were unjustly killed by whites.
Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager from Jacksonville, Fla., was shot by Michael Dunn, a 48-year-old white man, last November. Dunn claims he acted in self-defense because he was afraid Davis had a gun. Obama hasn't publicly expressed sympathy for Davis' parents, and American cities have remained conspicuously riot-free. That's probably because as with the suspects in the Lane and Belton killings, and unlike Zimmerman, Dunn was not set free shortly after shooting Davis, and it didn't take a national outcry for him to be charged. Likewise there were no riots or expressions of presidential sympathy last year in reaction to the death of 13-year-old Darius Simmons, who was shot and killed by his white neighbor, John Henry Spooner.
So, despite conservative predictions of riots at many phases of the Zimmerman saga, no large-scale civil unrest occurred. Parker's fears of "riots," like those expressed during the Zimmerman trial, seem to be a projection of her own imagination.
It's unlikely that conservatives will heed the statements of law enforcement officials investigating the Lane and Belton killings that the assailants were not racially motivated. Fox News interviewed Belton's great nephew, Allen Hills, on Monday. He implored the network to stop imputing a racial motive to those suspected of killing his great-uncle: "[I]f I could say this to everybody: stop making this about race. This isn't about race. This is about two punk kids that had no parents, no family, no morals, no nothing. This has nothing to do with the color of their skin."
They didn't listen to him either.