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Trayvon vs. Tyrone: Why Racial Stories Are a Bad Idea

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Besides, the Tulsa case is more about crime than race. Look at this picture: the people gathered to talk about this crime with a member of the Tulsa Crime Commission, neighbors of the Straits, are white and black. In fact, of nine neighbors visible in the photo, five are black. Blacks, percentage-wise, are more often the victims of violent crimes than whites -- largely because they live in poor neighborhoods, where, not surprisingly, the perpetrators, too, are black, and not surprisingly, mostly young.

But here's another photo from that same neighborhood meeting -- in this shot, all you see are white faces. Get the problem? Depending on what you see, that's what you get.

We All Lose

The point is, you can take virtually any high-profile story and create a cause celebre to suit your own perspective, prejudices, agenda. Identifying the bad guys depends on your point of view: Racism is the problem; people of another color are the problem; guns are the culprit, guns are our salvation. On and on it goes.

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But one thing is certain: these kinds of stories keep ordinary Americans at each other's throats. And in this state of mind, we -- all of us -- are susceptible to manipulation by cynical political operators, who exploit inter-ethnic tensions to lure segments of the public to certain policies and candidates. In the end, the winners are those who stoke the animosities of ordinary people so as to advance their own objectives -- which often result in the election of politicians whose principal missions have nothing to do with ordinary people but everything to do with the corporate funders behind them. Just ask Karl Rove. How he must be smiling over the latest political equivalent of professional wrestling.

Ultimately, though, the suspicion, desperation and fear that lead to violence and loss of life largely have their roots in the dysfunction and alienation that are byproducts of the social dynamic in this country. And much of that has to do not with race but with economic opportunity. You will see very, very few middle class African Americans breaking into people's homes with murderous intent. Meanwhile, black, inner-city youths are regularly harassed by police officers pursuing "stop and frisk" policies; not surprisingly, young blacks make up a huge percentage of our prison population based largely on petty or victimless crimes like marijuana possession. African Americans in California are 12 times more likely to be imprisoned for possessing marijuana than whites, for which offense they can receive cruelly long sentences in overcrowded institutions that are rightly characterized as crime incubators.

The bigger stories are almost always traceable back to societal and structural issues. And these so often come down to who has the money and the power -- and what they do with it. While the rich get unconscionably richer, cutbacks in the "safety net" undermine such crucial underpinnings as employment and education for people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who then lose hope and direction.

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That's the never-ending story that should be properly covered and discussed. But it isn't. Because we're all too busy fighting with each other over some very meager spoils.

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Author, investigative journalist, editor-in-chief at WhoWhatWhy.com

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