Chris Lane murder: Is a racist dimension of the crime being discounted?

The shooting of college student Chris Lane in Oklahoma is stirring a debate over what constitutes a hate crime. Racist tweets, allegedly from social media accounts of a black suspect, prompt some to ask if race was a motive in the murder.

By , Staff writer

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    This combination made with booking photos provided by the Stephens County, Okla., Sheriffs Department, shows, from left, James Francis Edwards Jr., 15, Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, and Chancey Allen Luna, 16, all of Duncan, Okla.
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Use of racial epithets, on the social media account of a black teenager accused in the Aug. 16 “thrill killing” of Chris Lane, a white college student from Australia, is not likely to prompt officials to treat the murder as a racial hate crime, according to early indications from local police.

The killing of Mr. Lane in Duncan, Okla., has drawn international attention, sparked an attempted tourist boycott, and reignited debates about easy access to guns in the US. It also comes about a month after the verdict in the racially charged Trayvon Martin murder case, which caused a stir in the black community when George Zimmerman was found not guilty.  

Now, news of racist tweets allegedly by one of two black suspects in the Lane killing is causing some white Americans to murmur about how officials are classifying the crime. The offensive tweets are playing on white perceptions of a double standard when it comes to hate and violence – that the news media and prosecutors are quick to pursue evidence of white racism, but tend to ignore or discount evidence of black racism in crimes such as the Lane murder.

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Black mob attacks on whites in recent years in Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and other cities have helped to sow suspicion among some whites that police are unwilling to file hate-crime charges against black defendants, even in the face of indications that racism is involved.

The tweets in question, found on the social media accounts of suspect James Edwards by the Daily Caller website, included several race-related references. One tweet read, “90 percent of white ppl are nasty. #HATE THEM.” Another, referencing the Zimmerman trial, stated: “Ayeee I knocced out 5 woods since Zimmerman court! :)” The Urban Dictionary defines “wood,” or pecker-wood, as a derogatory term for white people.

Chancey Luna, who is black, is also charged in the murder. A third teen, Michael Jones, who is white, is charged with being an accessory to first-degree murder.

So far, neither local police nor the US Department of Justice has suggested that the murder was motivated by racial animosity. Indeed, the young ages of the alleged perpetrators speak more loudly about the senseless act than do Twitter epithets, the Duncan police chief said. Police say the teenagers said they shot Lane because they were “bored.”

“I don’t think there’d be any further charge,” Duncan Police Chief Dan Ford told The Daily Caller, when asked about possible hate-crime charges. “I’m not discounting the stuff that’s on there, but they do that for shock and effect.”

The FBI training manual for identifying hate crimes instructs law enforcement officials that "the mere fact the offender is biased against the victim's actual or perceived race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and/or gender identity does not mean that a hate crime was involved. Rather, the offender's criminal act must have been motivated, in whole or in part, by his or her bias."

Police in the Lane case appear to have made a distinction between hateful motivation and an indiscriminate, random attack, says Indiana University law professor Jeannine Bell, author of “Hate Thy Neighbor,” who has researched how police view hate-crime charges.

“I’ve seen how police see lots of cases in which there’s language that’s used that involve slurs and epithets, and where police are able to discern what is actual motivation from what is language and epithets,” she says.

FBI guidance on this point includes investigating whether the suspect made "bias-related oral comments, written statements, or gestures." Another fact supportive of a finding of bias is whether "a substantial portion of the community where the crime occurred perceived that the incident was motivated by bias," according to the "Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual."

The perception – amplified by cable talk shows, talk radio, and social media – that police are playing down racial aspects in Lane's killing because the victim was white fits a larger trend in public opinion. According to a study by psychologists Michael Norton and Sam Sommers, whites see race "as a zero-sum game that they are now losing."

The pair talked to 208 blacks and 209 whites to determine the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were discrimination targets in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s, on a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 10 ("very much"). Both groups largely agreed that the 1950s featured broad discrimination against blacks and little against whites. By the 2000s, however, 11 percent of white respondents gave anti-white bias a maximum 10 rating compared with 2 percent of whites who rated anti-black bias as a 10. Cumulative black scores, however, suggested that blacks have perceived only a modest increase in "reverse racism."

“Whites … now believe that that [black racial] progress is linked to a new inequality – at their expense," writes Mr. Sommers.

"There does seem to be in certain corners of the public, or even media depictions of contemporary society, sort of a rising sentiment, whether it’s the war on Christmas or the war on boys, this idea that traditional forms of discrimination are no longer the ones we’re dealing with. Instead, we’re dealing with the reverse forms of discrimination,” Sommers says in an interview with the Monitor.

The Lane shooting "has been seized upon as symbolic … [of] a slight that they perceive," he adds.

Moreover, a recent Gallup poll finds a "growing gulf" between blacks' views and whites' views of the US justice system. More than two-thirds of blacks in the survey say the justice system is biased against blacks, compared with only 25 percent of whites. "Blacks' attitudes about the justice system have remained virtually constant over the past 20 years, but whites have become less likely to perceive bias," the poll concludes.

FBI hate-crime statistics consistently rank anti-black bias as a more significant source of racially motivated hate crime than anti-white bias. From 1995, when hate-crimes reporting began, through 2011, anti-black bias accounts for about two-thirds of all incidents classified as racially motivated hate crimes. Anti-white bias has hovered in the 20 percent range of reported cases.

In 2011, the most recent year for which the FBI reported data, anti-white bias accounted for 17.3 percent of reported cases, compared with 71.2 percent for anti-black bias, according to FBI hate crime statistics.

But for some white Americans, such statistics merely raise questions as to whether law enforcement officials are accurately accounting for racially motivated crime.

“The racial double standard about who gets charged with a hate crime has been noticed by white people, and is not something that is going to advance race relations in America,” says Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University law professor and author of “The New White Nationalism in America.”

The reality, she says, is that “governments continue to treat black-on-white crimes as plain old crimes, and whenever there’s the reverse order, white-on-minority, there’s a great effort to find the racial motivation.”

The trial of Mr. Zimmerman came to represent America’s fractured reckoning with race and racism, as the country divided neatly between those who believed that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, was railroaded by a race-baiting political cabal and those who saw his not-guilty verdict in July as more proof that black victims still struggle for justice in America.

President Obama weighed in twice, once saying that Trayvon could have been his son, and then, in long off-the-cuff remarks after the verdict, how Trayvon could have been him 35 years ago. He also noted at that time that black history provides black Americans with a specific and painful lens through which to view the world.

Critics want the president to speak up to condemn racism aimed at whites, as well – and they see in the Lane case an opportunity to do so, given the racist sentiments allegedly espoused by a black suspect. “Who will POTUS identify w/ this time,” tweeted former US Rep. Allen West, a black conservative.

Some critics, including Ms. Swain at Vanderbilt, fault black civil rights leaders for goading emotions around race when it fits their political agenda, while ignoring or playing down racially motivated crimes by blacks against whites.

“There’s this false assumption that black people can’t be racist, that you have to have power to be racist,” says Swain. “But when you have a gun or you have them outnumbered, you have power.”

She adds: “I think that we do have to change the conversation in America about race, and one of things we have to focus on is bad behavior in the black community, behavior that’s unacceptable and the silence that surrounds it.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a confidante of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote in a tweet Wednesday that he is "praying for the family of Chris Lane. This senseless violence is frowned upon and the justice system must prevail."

A Melbourne native, Lane was a student at East Central University in Ada, Okla., where he attended on a baseball scholarship. He was visiting his girlfriend in Duncan when he was shot in the back.

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