Amy Sly for BuzzFeed
It was near midnight on April 14 when the Chevy Cavalier carrying Dave Forster and Marjon Rostami rolled to a stop at a red light in Norfolk, Va. As the pair waited, one of a crowd of teenagers on the sidewalk threw a rock at the passenger seat window, prompting Forster to get out of the car and confront the aggressor.
That’s when the beating began.
Forster later said the crowd swarmed, taking turns punching and kicking him in the ribs and face. When Rostami got out to help, the attackers moved on to her, pulling her hair and dealing one blow after another. Police eventually arrived, the crowd dispersed, and the victims were left shaken and bruised, but not gravely injured. Local authorities wrote it off as an all-too-routine assault in a city whose violent crime rate is well above the state average. Even the Norfolk newspaper where the victims worked, the Virginian-Pilot, skipped the story, which the editor deemed un-newsworthy. That was before Bill O’Reilly found out about it.
The Fox News host turned the incident into national news by adding one detail: The attackers were black, and the victims were white.
If you’ve spent much time consuming conservative media lately, you’ve probably learned about a slow-burning “race war” going on in America today. Sewing together disparate data points and compelling anecdotes like the attack in Norfolk, conservative bloggers and opinion-makers are driving the narrative with increasing frequency. Their message: Black-on-white violence is spiking — and the mainstream media is trying to cover it up.
This notion isn’t necessarily new to the right, which has long complained about stifling political correctness in the media and the rising tide of “reverse racism.” But the race war narrative has gained renewed traction during the Obama years, as various factors — from liberals’ efforts to paint the Tea Party as racist, to the widely-covered Trayvon Martin shooting — have left conservatives feeling unfairly maligned, and combative.
“I wouldn’t call it political correctness, I would call it lying,” said Tucker Carlson, editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, describing what he considers to be the media’s racial double-standard. “To the press, the only hate crimes are straight white men somehow committing acts of violence against people who are not straight white men. When in fact, the real world is a lot more complicated than that.”
Conservatives have been fighting allegations of racism for years, regularly crying foul when liberals demonize them for opposing policies like affirmative action. But the catalyst for the latest pushback on the right was Democrats’ attempts to brand the Tea Party “racist,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative scholar of race and George W. Bush appointee U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“I think the ‘R-word’ is the worst, most damning word in our vocabulary now,” she said. “So of course Morgan Freeman comes out and calls the whole Tea Party racist, and the media treats it like it’s OK. This had been a source of annoyance for some time” — but the absurdity of the racist-Tea-Party narrative was enough to spark vocal dissent, she said.
“I think it’s only recently that there have been outspoken voices, particularly on blogs, saying, ‘Shut up Jesse Jackson, we’re tired of you,’” she said. “There’s been increasing impatience with the media’s indulgence of people who have no moral legitimacy.”
The conservative media’s in-your-face reporting of black-on-white crime is a sort of demonstration project — a rebellious response to decades of fielding charges of racism from the cultural elites who run the mainstream press. And to many on the right, the Norfolk story is emblematic of the bias Carlson described.
Outraged that the national media didn’t give this story the same extensive coverage as the Martin shooting, O’Reilly launched into a campaign that has stretched over several nights of Fox’s top-rated show. Along the way, his team has uncovered an early police report that described the assault as a hate crime (authorities said it was a clerical error), and found neighborhood kids who speculated on camera that the assailants were exacting racial revenge for the death of Trayvon. O’Reilly has also publicly shamed the local newspaper for ignoring the story, and even called on Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to intervene in the investigation.
“This is a major story,” O’Reilly said on his show one night earlier this month. “We cannot have Americans of any color being set upon by violent mobs. That cannot stand in this country. The Factor will continue to demand justice in Virginia.”
But while Norfolk may be the most high-profile chapter yet in the “race war,” it’s hardly the only one conservatives have highlighted. Over the past four years, the Drudge Report has run dozens of headlines chronicling acts of violence against white victims — often by black youths.
In one particularly memorable Drudge front page last year, the site culled the newswires for articles about “urban” crime that took place over Memorial Day weekend, and then grouped them together. Among the headlines: “Miami ‘war zone’ during urban weekend;” “Rib fest at Rochester beach turns rowdy;” and “Unruly urban crowd shuts down Nashville water park.”
And on September 15, 2009, Drudge led with the headline, “WHITE STUDENT BEATEN ON BUS; CROWD CHEERS.” The story — which showed video of a black teenager in Illinois beating up a white classmate — went viral in the right-wing blogosphere, prompting Rush Limbaugh to weigh in.
“In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering,” Limbaugh declared.
It is an article of faith among many conservatives that Obama has exacerbated nationwide racial tensions. Ward Connerly, a veteran California anti-affirmative action activist and leading black conservative, accused the president of trying to take political advantage of “racial disputes,” rather than diffuse them.
“Obama has been more racial than any white president has ever been in my lifetime,” said Connerly, adding, “Candidly, I think that race relations are probably worse now among the average person on the street than they were the day President Obama was elected.”
Last week, Thomas Sowell, a prominent black intellectual on the right, crystalized the conservative race war theory with a viral column describing an active, nationwide cover-up of black-on-white crime:
What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettoes launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places. If there is anything worse than a one-sided race war, it is a two-sided race war, especially when on of the races outnumbers the other several times over.
Though his column was aggregated as an expose of the “spike in black-on-white violence,” Sowell himself did not cite any statistics, relying instead on anecdotal evidence.
Indeed, the irony of the race war narrative’s latest flare-up is that it comes at a time when national crime rates have reached historic lows — including reported hate crimes against whites. According to a report released by the FBI, there were 575 anti-white bias crimes reported in 2010 — up slightly from the 545 reported in 2009, but distinctly lower than the 716 reported in 2008. Overall, the past decade has seen a downward trend in anti-white bias crime. What’s more, hate crimes against blacks have continued to outstrip those against whites by about four-to-one: In 2010 alone, there were 2,201 reported. Violent crimes across the spectrum reached a four-decade low in 2010.
But to conservatives, the argument is less about a spike in the actual statistics — or in the eternal, low-profile neighborhood tensions that have been part of the American story since Irish and Italian kids were clashing in the New York City slums of Five Points — than it is about changing the politics of race and the right.
Dan Riehl, a conservative blogger who runs Riehl World View and contributes to Breitbart News, said that black-on-white violence isn’t as predominant as other criminal-victim dynamics, but he still argued the news media have a special incentive to over-report stories of white criminals.
“There are special interest groups on the left that exploit reports of white-on-black crime for political gain,” Riehl said. “The media keeps doing these stories because because people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton drum up more talk around them.”
In response to this perceived bias, some in the conservative media have opted to tackle racial taboos head on, gleefully upending traditional journalistic practices and taunting the PC police. Nowhere was this defiant attitude more apparent than at The Daily Caller earlier this year as the drama of the Trayvon case unfolded.
“I was struck by the immediate, uncloaked assumption by the media that Trayvon Martin was innocent,” said Carlson. “As a journalist, I would never assume that — black, white, with Skittles, without Skittles. The coverage of that was so dishonest it was unbelievable.”
Carlson pushed back aggressively in his own newsroom: “My instructions were really clear: find out all the information you can and let’s print it.”
As a result, the Caller was the first outlet to find and publish the contents of a Twitter feed belonging to Martin. Many of the Tweets were crass and sexual, studded with teenage bravado, demeaning language about women, and drug references. Carlson seemed to take delight in fighting the accepted mainstream media narrative that Martin was nothing but an angelic victim.
“Of course we got attacked and people said we were racist, but I didn’t care,” Carlson said.
As the Trayvon case has died down, the Caller has continued to follow the race wars with combative coverage, recently publishing an interview with the sister of an assault victim in Mobile, Ala. who claimed a black “mob” attacked him after he tried to stop a robbery.
A popular conservative meme made after Obama waded into the Trayvon Martin shooting by saying, “If I had a son, he would look just like Trayvon.”
Stories like these have plenty of detractors, who say they appeal to the worst instincts of their white audience. Curtis Lawrence, diversity chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said best practices generally dictate that news outlets should only identify a criminal suspect’s race when there’s evidence suggesting it was a factor in the crime — otherwise, he said, they run the risk of recklessly affirming negative racial stereotypes.
And Cheryl Contee, founder of the left-leaning black blog Jack and Jill Politics, blasted this type of coverage as fear-mongering propaganda.
“Pushing the notion of a ‘race war’ or raising the specter of black on white crime serves to frighten those who might be considering voting for Obama in November,” she said, adding, “It’s perhaps the most naked attempt to date to use fear of The Other to bring back those who may be increasingly alienated from conservative policies.”
But for conservatives who have long believed themselves unfairly criticized for talking about race, the current moment is something close to vindication.
“I think there has been a long simmering mild anger and frustration about this double standard, this way that conservatives are treated,” said Connerly. “And we’re now seeing that come out.”
The new online right, meanwhile, seems to be well past the fear of being called racist, and they say the focus on black-on-white crime isn’t going to go away.
“If a group of white youths beat up a black kid, the press would certainly name the race of the victim and the race of the alleged perpetrators,” said the Caller’s Carlson. “It’s as simple as that.”