We live in tumultuous times indeed, especially in the US. We see it everywhere, on every channel, on every radio station, even in our movies and streaming entertainment. All around us, violence, racism, and terrorism seem to permeate every aspect of our daily lives.
This story is one that may seem familiar. It happened in rural America and was a fatal altercation, if you can call it that, between members of two different races. When the dust settled and the culprits were caught, it wasn’t the crime itself which captivated the nation, but the motive…
Featured Photo Credit: abc.net.au
Baseball was Good to Him
Chris was a young man on the adventure of a lifetime. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Chris was going to college in the United States in order to do the thing he loved the most: play baseball. He was good at it too, good enough for him to have been awarded a scholarship to play it in the states.
Chris attended East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. His American girlfriend, Sarah, lived in Duncan, not far from the school. He had just returned to school after taking a trip back home to Australia, when he ran afoul of three younger men who were not happy to see the handsome young foreigner in their digs…
The three men came upon him quite suddenly whilst he was visiting with Sarah. Chris was two weeks away from celebrating his 23rd birthday when he was shot in the back as they drove past. He died at the scene, far away from his homeland. Luckily, if one can call it lucky in this case, the police easily tracked down the underage assailants.
The three young men who shot Chris Lane were identified as fifteen-year-old James Francis Edwards Jr. (left), seventeen-year-old Michael Dewayne Jones (right), and sixteen-year-old Chancey Allen Luna (center). Jones was only charged as an accessory, as for James and Edwards, they were charged with first-degree murder. Unfortunately, these charges brought some complications with them…
Allen and Edwards were both African Americans, Jones was white, and it was because of these racial distinctions that the case against them became somewhat complicated. You see, there were some that believed that the reason the teens had shot Chris Lane in the first place was because he himself was caucasian and that this murder was racially charged: a hate crime.
Chris Lane’s death drew quite a bit of international attention and not just because he was Australian, but because the idea that this might be a hate crime has created a good deal of debate across the internet. The shooting reignited debates about gun control of course and racially-charged killings like the Trayvon Martin murder case…
George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict ignited a nationwide debate over whether or not law enforcement officials purposefully targeted minorities as suspects. It also enraged members of the African American community to the point where a number of black mobs orchestrated attacks on whites in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.
The reason that the hate crime charges would be significant is all in response to the rampant police misconduct against minorities in recent years. It seems that enforcement officials are unwilling to file hate-crime charges against two black teens for shooting a white man, because they might be afraid what the fallout of that might be. They aren’t wrong per sey…
The social media account of James Edwards, one of the killers soon blew up with a number of racial epithets against white people. This of course only served to lend credence to the idea that it was a racially-charged killing. One Tweet read, “90 percent of white ppl are nasty. #HATE THEM.”
Another Tweet referenced the Zimmerman trial specifically. “Ayeee I knocced out 5 woods since Zimmerman court! :)” The Urban Dictionary defines “wood,” or pecker-wood, as a derogatory term for white people. It was therefore a bit hard for anyone to argue that this might have not been a hate crime. Still, the police were still trying to find out why they’d killed Chris in the first place…
What the police believed and what would eventually come to light after the debating was done, was that the murder was nothing more than a “thrill-killing” and that it was less motivated by racial animosity. The young teens didn’t kill Chris because he was white, they killed him because they were young, foolish, and bored.
Only for Shock
After making this determination, aided by the fact that the third suspect was himself caucasian, Duncan Police Chief Dan Ford answered the question of whether or not the hate crime charges would be applied. “I’m not discounting the stuff that’s on there, but they do that for shock and effect…I don’t think there’d be any further charge.” Some people were not pleased…
The FBI training manual discusses what a hate crime is actually defined as. It says that even if the offender is biased against the victim for their actual or perceived race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and/or gender identity, it doesn’t necessarily make it a hate crime. The act itself has to have been motivated by that bias.
By that definition, the mere fact that the police in this case believe Lane’s death to be the result of an indiscriminate, random attack makes this not a hate crime. Nevertheless, the advent of things like the internet have amplified the debate to levels no one could have foreseen. Aided by things like cable talk shows, radio, and of course, social media…
The overall thought across the country was that the police involved in the case were deliberately trying to downplay the racial aspects in Lane’s killing specifically because the victim was white. It fits into a larger trend that’s affecting law enforcement standards across the country. Psychologists Michael Norton and Sam Sommers, did a study recently where they concluded that whites see race “as a zero-sum game that they are now losing.”
The growing gulf between the views of many black Americans and white Americans is making the determination in cases like this even more difficult. The police, no matter what they decided here, will invariably be viewed as wrong by at least one group on either side of the divide. If they choose to apply the extra hate crime charge, they may be seen as “needlessly adding punishment because the defendants are African Americans.” On the other hand…
Will They? Won’t They?
If they don’t apply the hate crime statute to the defendants, some will see it as pandering while others will see it as ignoring the perceived hatefulness of the act itself. Indeed, some white Americans may wonder if law enforcement officials are accurately accounting for racially motivated crime. Essentially, either way you turn or twist, there’s some kind of double standard.
Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University law professor and author of “The New White Nationalism in America” had a bit to say about the issue as well, specifically about this double standard. “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.” she explained. She isn’t wrong either, but she went on to discuss the idea of racism on both sides of the issue…
Changing the Conversation
Professor Swain’s feeling is that we as Americans have to change the conversation entirely. What we can’t forget in all this is that what those young men did, for whatever reason they did it, was wrong and ended a person’s life. Those that do such things should be punished, though the degree of punishment seems to still be up for debate.
Luna and Edwards were originally found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, even without the hate crime charges. That in and of itself brings up further issues of racial bias, specifically because they were minors at the time of sentencing. Ultimately, Swain may be right. Both communities, white and black, have to focus on unacceptable behavior and the silence that surrounds it, and stamp that out first, before placing blame.