Asked About Trayvon, Conservative Changes Subject to Al Sharpton

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That isn't an Onion headline. Mark Steyn was the interviewee. And his strange choice of emphasis merits scrutiny.

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Reuters

While at Hillsdale College for a Tuesday speaking engagement, conservative writer and occasional Rush Limbaugh guest host Mark Steyn was asked about the Trayvon Martin case by the student newspaper. The exchange is a fascinating example of how some movement conservatives grapple with race.

The question:

In your article "Rave on for Trayvon," you highlighted the craziness of the protests around the Florida shooting. Beneath all of that do you see serious civil rights issues?

Mark Steyn's answer:

If you mean by "serious civil rights issue," do I think its 1962 in Selma, Alabama? Nobody does except Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Sorry, I should say the Reverend Al Sharpton or the Reverend Jesse Jackson. I don't know quite how long it's been since Reverend Jackson has been a practicing pastor at any church, but you're obliged to call him that for all of eternity. These superannuated hucksters make their livings out of their cobwebbed grievance mongering. What's interesting is that the rest of the world has moved on. There's no real white guy involved in this. They want you to think it's like a Klansman, this white racist. For starters, this guy is a registered democrat. He's half hispanic, which is why the New York Times has had to invent the term "white-hispanic" hitherto unknown to American journalism.

"White-hispanic" was a phrase constructed so that this guy could still be white enough to fit the narrative of the Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton super-annuated race huskers. It's pathetic. What's interesting about this story is that it shows America has moved on. None of us know the circumstances. Did this guy racially profile the black teenager in the hoodie and take action? Maybe the black teenager in the hoodie profiled the middle-aged hispanic man coming towards him and thought, "Oh what is this? A big Latino gangster? The idea that this fits some sort of Eisenhower template of Mr. and Mrs. White-Picket-Fence America being unable to get past their endemic racism --- it's not at all.

There are any number of insightful things one could say about the Trayvon Martin case. So why does Mark Steyn decide to organize his comments around his notion of what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are thinking? It's bizarre. And If we accept Steyn's logic, those two hold a wrongheaded opinion about the case that all other American's reject. So why elevate and scrutinize and argue against them when asked a question about civil rights? Why this impulse to turn any question about race into an occasion to lob recycled criticism at longtime bogeymen? Must it happen anytime a liberal, even one as widely derided as Sharpton, says anything that lends itself to mockery? 

What comes next is even more bizarre. Even as Steyn complains that liberals are always bringing race into conversations where it doesn't belong, he proceeds to emphasize, more than anything else, the fact that George Zimmerman is half-Hispanic, and media coverage of same, writing as if Zimmerman's non-white status tells us something about whether there was anti-black racism. Do you see what's happened? Some conservatives are so obsessed with the notion that the media is obsessed with race that they themselves discuss everything through a racial lens. (Hence Rush Limbaugh reacting to poor Donovan McNabb performances with unprompted musings about how the media just wanted him to be successful because he was black).  

Perhaps conservatives would be better off if, when asked questions like, "Do you think civil rights were implicated when the unarmed black kid was shot and killed," they answered, "it's worth investigating, but we can't tell until all the facts are in and shouldn't make any presumptions." Instead, we get a rant about how Al Sharpton is a huckster and The New York Times sucks because they tried to obscure the race of the shooter. And no attempt to grapple with the underlying question in any satisfying or rigorous way. Steyn allows his analysis of race in America to be shaped largely by his impression of what Sharpton and the Times are saying. But why?

As Kevin Drum put it, "the problem conservatives have is that this is pretty much the sum total of their take on racial issues: that liberals bring it up too often."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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