Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Let's have the conversation about race

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
August 26, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
Christopher Lane, from Australia, was gunned down in Duncan, Oklahoma, while he was out jogging last week. Police say he was killed by three teens who said they had nothing better to do. Police have now charged the three teens in Lane's death. Christopher Lane, from Australia, was gunned down in Duncan, Oklahoma, while he was out jogging last week. Police say he was killed by three teens who said they had nothing better to do. Police have now charged the three teens in Lane's death.
HIDE CAPTION
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
Charges filed in death of Australian student
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: A debate broke out over race and Oklahoma killing
  • He says people raised race in the wake of the national debate over Zimmerman case
  • In both cases, it's unknown if the victims were targeted because of race, he says
  • Navarrette: The media needs to avoid tailoring its reporting to political or social goals

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Americans are told we need to have a national conversation in which we talk about race. 

And yet, when we have horrific crimes with white victims where the alleged perpetrators are African-American or Latino, we're told that we can't talk about race. 

This isn't true when the roles are reversed. If the victims are African-American or Latino, and the alleged perpetrator is white, we talk about race until our throats go dry.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Confused? Join the club. 

If Americans don't understand it, how are we to explain any of this to the grieving family of Christopher Lane, a 22-year-old college baseball player from Melborne, Australia, who was recently gunned down while jogging in a neighborhood a world away -- Duncan, Oklahoma? 

According to police, the evidence suggests that the shooting was not premeditated and random. It could have been part of a gang initiation, according to a theory floated by the father of a boy who the three teenagers allegedly tried to recruit.     

But here's the headline: Prosecutors say that the killing was not about race, despite the fact that one alleged assailant left a long cyber trail on social media where he talked about hating "woods" (derogatory slang for white people) and glorified guns and violence.

Race issues and the media
Was Oklahoma's killing a gang initiation?
Inside Oklahoma's 'boredom' killing

"At this point, the evidence does not support the theory that Christopher Lane was targeted based upon his race or nationality," said District Attorney Jason Hicks. 

Eric Deggans: When racial clichés drive murder stories

As ghoulish as it sounds, it may be that the three teenagers responsible for the shooting -- 15-year-old James Edwards and 16-year-old Chancey Luna, who have been charged with first-degree murder, and 17-year-old Michael Long, who has been charged with being an accessory after the fact to murder for driving the car -- were simply bored and decided to kill someone. Unfortunately for Lane, who was visiting his girlfriend and her family, he was that someone. 

This could have been the media's narrative of the Oklahoma slaying, just another senseless act by messed-up teenagers who were raised on video games and think life resets when you press a button or drop in another quarter.

That is, except for two things: The victim and the alleged perpetrators are of different races. (Lane is white, and Edwards and Luna -- the alleged shooters -- are African-American. Long, the alleged accomplice, is white.) And, as Americans, we are still living through the aftershocks of the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.  

Some Americans are still smarting over the fact that the Zimmerman verdict, and the shooting itself, were spun by grievance merchants and other social activists to be all about race. Now they want to know why there isn't a similar response over the killing in Oklahoma.

In both cases, the central question is the same: Was the deceased targeted because of his race? In both cases, we still don't know the answer.

Meanwhile, where is President Obama's awkward statement that, if he had a friend from Australia, he might look like Chris Lane?

LZ Granderson: Negligent parents, lawbreaking kids

Some will say that the reason there has been no outcry from the activists is because authorities in Oklahoma insist that this case isn't about race. So what? The authorities in Florida also told us that what happened there wasn't about race. A lot of good that did. Some of the same folks who discounted the official explanation back then want us to accept it now. It doesn't work that way.

I think it's time for that national conversation. There's nothing wrong with talking about race. Especially at a time in U.S. history when the concept is so complicated and confusing.

The nation's 52 million Latinos aren't a race, but many of them -- especially in the Southwest -- are experiencing something that looks and smells a lot like racism. Obama is half-black and half-white, and yet he's referred to as the first black president not the 44th white one. Zimmerman, who is half-Peruvian and half-white, appears to have lived his life as a Hispanic until he shot an unarmed African-American teenager and the media decided it was necessary to label him a "white Hispanic." And, in an increasingly multicultural America, the census form looks like a relic from a simpler time where most Americans fit neatly into racial categories.   

What is the media supposed to do about all this? There's a debate over when to mention race and when to leave it out. The longstanding rule in journalism is that we shouldn't mention the race of someone accused of committing a crime unless it is relevant to the story.

That rule seems half-baked. Why wouldn't a suspect's race be "relevant" -- especially when that suspect is still at large and the police need the public's help in locating him? It's a human characteristic. Would we leave out of a story any mention of one's gender or age, so we're not accused of sexism or ageism? 

Self-censorship isn't the answer. When a horrendous crime like this happens, we need more information not less.

Besides, once we sanitize the news, or manipulate it to serve an agenda, it's no longer news. It's public relations.

Or worse. Think of it as nanny journalism. Too many people in my profession have strayed from the mission of reporting what happened -- or in my field of opinion writing, telling you what we think about what happened -- to massaging what happened in order to advance some greater societal good. And when journalists -- either on our own, or at the direction of the people we work for -- impersonate social workers, we ask for trouble.

We also surrender our credibility. And once that's gone, why should anyone listen to anything we say ever again?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT