Media

Distorting the Murder of Football Star Sean Taylor

The initial press reports of the murder of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor illuminate the media's racist double standard.
A handful of black sportswriters hit the ceiling when they read initial press reports on the shooting death of Washington Redskins All-Pro safety Sean Taylor. The issue was the perennial, suspect, and sneaky alleged double standard in the reporting on and public view of tragedies that befall blacks and whites, especially athletes and celebrities.

The howl of protest goes up that when a black athlete is accused of bad behavior, criminality or boorishness the press and public go ballistic. They dredge up every misdeed the player has committed and ad nauseum drill it home that they are bad guys (or girls) and deserve the scorn of the nation.

When white athletes are accused of the same or worse bad behavior, criminality or boorishness, the excuses fly like raindrops in a hurricane, and then the news of their misdeeds vanishes from print and the airwaves faster than a Houdini disappearing act. Taylor is no exception to this rule, and the black journalists that raised the hue and cry were right to scream their lungs out about it.

The first accounts of Taylor's murder were spare on details of the shooting, since there was almost none, and there were no suspects, no reported clues, and no reported motivation for the shooting. But the reports more than made up for the sparseness by dredging up every sordid detail about Taylor's past run-ins with the law.

The image rammed into the public brain, what's become a template for depicting supposedly bad behaving, was bad acting young black males. The war of words was now on with a vengeance. The denials flew hot and heavy that any disrespect, and minimizing the tragedy, or that a subtle dump the blame for Taylor's death on his alleged thug lifestyle was intended. After all, those run-ins did badly color his life.

As distasteful as they might be, they were fair game for reporting. That's a good, even valid, point. Taylor did have problems, and there was nothing inherently inappropriate from a reporting, fact finding, or just plain human interest standpoint in saying that. The double standard line, however, is vaulted when a black athlete's woes are continuously repeated, and endlessly speculated about as a possible reason for his murder.

Though in most accounts after the initial harp on Taylor's past, balance was restored, and the reports emphasized the suffering of his parents, friends, and fans. There were sympathetic quotes about Taylor being a mature, positive role model, and about the pace of the investigation.

Yet, while follow-up stories mercifully dropped the dig at his past, the new take on him was that he had turned his life around. That still left the bitter taste that Taylor was a bad guy that went good, but it might have been too late to save him. To their credit most fans and writers and much of the public were more than willing to step past the blatant initial and ongoing subtle bias and give Taylor his mournful due.

But the bad taste of the initial paint of Taylor as a bad actor stuck like a lead weight in the craw. This isn't the only thing that's hurtful in the coverage of Taylor. There was the hint, and some talking heads did more than hint, that though Taylor was a rich, star athlete, he was still a young black male. And like all young black males he was in mortal peril of being gunned down.

In other words his fame and athletic prowess did not shield him from the black on black violence that supposedly rages in all big city poor black neighborhoods. The problem with that as with the skewed initial picture of Taylor is that it's a lie. Taylor did not live in a poor, black inner city Miami neighborhood. He lived in a palatial suburban home with his long time companion and daughter. Those that actually knew him said that he was a loner and that he did not hang out with a drug peddling, gang connected crowd.

But even if Taylor was the thug that initial accounts subtly implied he once was, the Taylor as a casualty of black violence line still is a falsity. Murder rates among young black males in Tayor's 16 to 24 year old age group are still far higher than those among young white males. But those rates in Taylor's age group have plummeted in the last decade according to FBI crime reports, as have murder rates in most urban areas.

In New York City, for instance, murder rates have dropped to the lowest level in forty years. In Miami-Dade County, crime plunged more than 20 percent and murder rates also dropped. The chances of a young black male dying at the hands of another young black male are far less today than in the past. The senseless snuffing out of Taylor's life was a heartbreaking tragedy. But it's Taylor's death, not his life, that's the only thing that should leave a bad taste. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York).
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