Last week, as the pundits went to press with their recollections of the great news stories of 1981, jury selection began in the trial of a young black man accused of murdering two of those 28 Atlanta youths killed between 1979 and this past spring, when the string of murders suddenly ended.
It was a tragic story. Yet there was more to it than the murders, and though our pundits pride themselves in never flinching from the truth, I suspect that most will flinch violently from recollecting this particular 1981 news story in all its detail. In brief, the story was reported as a racist crime. For months on end many journalists dull-wittedly reported the story as though they were public relations hacks. And whom did they hack for?
Well, that is the other unsavory aspect of this 1981 news story. They hacked for some of our most respected civil rights leaders, which in itself is not all that exceptional. One of the unacknowledged truths of our time is that a vast amount of the news is provided through the medium of public relations. The problem with the Atlanta news story is that the civil rights leaders' slant on it was tommyrot. There was no evidence that these murders were racially motivated, none.
Charles Euchner, writing in the October issue of The Washington Monthly, has chronicled the wretched tale. There, he has shown that there never was any rational basis for the repeated claims that these murders were racist. The homes from which most of the victims came were well within Atlanta's black neighborhoods and far removed from whites. Moreover, the FBI printout on crime in Atlanta clearly showed that the murder of a black was more likely to be solved than the murder of a white. "In 1977," Euchner writes, "cases were closed in 83 percent of all murders of blacks, but in only 65 percent of whites. In 1978, the figures were 85 versus 66 percent, and in 1979, they were 58 versus 54." These figures should have put the kibosh to the charge that city or federal authorities treated white homicides as more serious than black homicides.
Unfortunately, one of the pieties of our day is that America is a racist society. Of course, a white racist would not prosper in Bull Snort, Ga., today; every student of public opinion realizes that there has been a steady diminution of racism in the Republic. Yet, as in the past, most journalists find it more comfortable to kowtow to the public pieties than to bear the burden of the skeptic. When racism was charged in Atlanta, the journalists' credulity was tapped.
Recall the appalling oratory, however. It all began with the charges of a local civil rights activist who episodically inflated her charges from saying "It's a class thing. They'd have found the killer if the people in this city cared" to "The feeling is that if it ain't the Klan, it's the cops." Soon Jesse Jackson was declaring, "It is open season on black people." In a letter to Time, a magazine which distinguished itself by questioning the racial theme, Jackson went further. According to him, "whether the killer or killers turns out to be black or white, black life is not and has never been valued by this society. Thus whites or blacks can kill blacks, and it is not seen in the same manner as when whites are killed. I regard this attitude as a cultural conspiracy to kill black people . . . the American culture is anti-black."
Even Washington's Mayor Marion Barry participated in the orgies, charging that had the victims "been Jewish, the federal government would have moved faster." And at the outer fringes there was Dick Gregory's thesis that the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta was spiriting off the black children for use in experiments. Further fuel for the hysteria was provided when black radio stations played old tapes of Malcolm X exhorting black unity. Then there were the green ribbons, implying that the solution to crime was merely a matter of politics. In 1981, the Atlanta killings made a sensational story, to be sure, but the story was fiction, fiction based on a piety that is nonsensical. Amrica, if the truth be known, is not a racist society. In fact, it is a rather good society.