After the horrific shooting of two local TV journalists in Virginia last week, the right-wing website Breitbart.com ran the in-your-face headline, "Race Murder in Virginia: Black Reporter Suspected of Executing White Colleagues -- On Live Television!" The site was accused of racist demagoguery -- and it has a troubling history of race-baiting. But as more information emerged about the tragedy, it became clear that in this case, the story does have a real racial angle that poses an uncomfortable challenge to liberals and the left.
Shooter Vester Flanagan, a gay African-American man and a former employee of WDJB-TV, where the victims worked, was obsessed with his perceived victimization by racism and homophobia. He had a history of discrimination claims rejected as groundless, and of confrontational behavior toward co-workers that cost him several jobs.
Shortly before his suicide Aug. 26, Flanagan tweeted about the racial slights he believed he had suffered from his victims, WDJB reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Charles Ward. In response, a blogger on the Gawker Media pages who goes by "WonderWomanist" made a post that concluded with the words, "RIP to the victims even though they may have been racist" -- a startling rush to judgment against two people who had just been gunned down in cold blood.
The WonderWomanist post was later deleted. Meanwhile, a Daily Beast story provided new details. Its headline stated that Flanagan had "played the race card for years" and made it clear that his alleged wrongs were the product of a paranoid imagination. He had accused Parker of racist language because she had used the phrases "swing by" and "out in the field" and mentioned someone living on "Cotton Hill Road," which he interpreted as subtle references to lynchings and slavery. He thought people brought watermelon to work to taunt him. He thought complaints from co-workers, including Ward, about his aggressive behavior were due to racism.
Nonetheless, in a Twitter exchange, CNN commentator Sally Kohn insisted that despite his mental instability, Flanagan "appears to have acted out of sense of victimization I have no reason to believe not justified." This bizarre statement reflects a common assumption in progressive circles that white people should virtually always defer to a person of color's perception of racism. (In today's lingo, challenging such claims is "whitesplaining.")
The major media have treated the issue of Flanagan's racial paranoia with tangible skittishness, often downplaying it as much as Breitbart downplayed the white supremacist aspect of the Charleston shootings by Dylann Roof. ABC News still hasn't released the full contents of the 23-page suicide manifesto he sent to the network promising to unleash the "race war" Roof had wanted. Yahoo News, which ran an Associated Press story on Flanagan's history as a "professional victim," later replaced it with another story under a title that focused on the victims and barely mentioned Flanagan's grievances.
The troubling fact is that Flanagan's story points to the dangerous underside of hyperawareness of racism being championed by a large portion of our progressive elites. Racism can poison and kill; sometimes, so can racial anger. Cultivating rage, portraying "white America" as a collective oppressor, and promoting the notion that perceptions of oppression are infallible is irresponsible and wrong.
All of us, regardless of race, ethnicity or politics, should work to de-escalate tensions and reduce polarization before we are reminded, again and again, that we all bleed the same color.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.