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Young: Right and left play fast and loose when talking about race

President Barack Obama speaks at the Lincoln Memorial

President Barack Obama speaks at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Obama and others spoke to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the US civil rights era March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech". (Aug. 28, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Most of last week's commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington noted that while we've made dramatic progress toward realizing the Rev. Martin Luther King's dream of a future in which Americans are no longer divided by skin color, racial divisions still run deep. This is especially true on the issue of race and crime, which taps into some powerful anxieties -- fears of being victimized either by criminal violence or by unjust suspicion.

That polarization is worsened by the fact that few of the people driving our political discourse, right or left, are willing to remove their own ideological blinders.

It's been evident in the reactions to George Zimmerman's acquittal in July after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the lawsuit challenging the stop-and-frisk police tactic in New York City, which was struck down last month as unconstitutional due to its racially uneven application.

The dominant view on the left is that blacks, particularly young black men, are routinely stereotyped as criminals. The dominant view on the right is that young black men are correctly viewed with more suspicion because they commit more crimes.

Both of these views reflect reality. Crime statistics do show a glaring racial imbalance -- blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet half of the robbery victims in federal crime surveys report black perpetrators. Amid the outrage over Zimmerman's acquittal, many conservatives pointed out, rightly, that a black teenager like Martin was statistically far more likely to be killed by another black man than by a white or Hispanic vigilante.

Too often, the liberal response to these facts has been denial. After the Zimmerman verdict, The Daily Beast ran a piece by Jamelle Bouie deploring "the myth of black-on-black crime." Bouie wrote that while most black murder victims are indeed killed by an offender of the same race, this is also true of white victims -- with only a passing reference to higher homicide rates in the black community. In fact, African-Americans under 25 are 14 times more likely to be homicide victims than whites in that age group. The reasons for this staggering gap are complex, but simply denying it helps no one.

Yet it is equally true that law-abiding black men, especially in urban areas, are often treated with suspicion by police and crime-fearing citizens alike. When white conservative pundits who have never had that experience argue that blacks should accept this as an understandable consequence of crime statistics, they sound gallingly patronizing.

It doesn't help when conservatives seem to care about the victims of black-on-black crime only when doing so helps them score debating points, or when the right-wing media engage in sloppy journalism to hype black criminality. Witness the recent reporting by Fox News and The Daily Caller that the three suspects in the Oklahoma killing of Australian athlete Christopher Lane were African-American (actually, one is white and one biracial).

Conservatives who claim to support individual rights against intrusive government should appreciate that a stop-and-frisk policy, which relies on vague criteria for suspicion, is likely to be colored (as it were) by racial profiling -- and to anger and alienate minorities. Liberals who pride themselves on "reality-based" beliefs must understand that even without profiling, the current demographics of crime mean that young black men will still disproportionately face wrongful suspicion -- for instance, because they match the description of a perpetrator. That was the case with several of the plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk suit.

Acknowledging inconvenient facts and listening to the other side may not give us the solutions to the thorny issues of race and crime. But it would be a good start.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.