Sunday, February 19, 2006

Looking Back: The Bogus Claim that Black Churches Were Being Targeted

From Jeff Jacoby:

. . . in the wake of a series of obvious hate crimes in Alabama, in which a series of churches (all Baptist) were set on fire within a short period of time and within a narrow geographic area, a reminder of the “hate crimes” that the media obsessed over, which weren’t hate crimes at all.
In 1996, a spate of fires in the South was wildly and falsely trumpeted in the media as an eruption of racism. “We are facing an epidemic of terror,” said Deval Patrick, the Clinton administration’s assistant attorney general for civil rights. But as it turned out, there was no racist conspiracy. More than a third of the arsonists arrested were black, and more than half the churches burned were white. So perhaps it is progress of a sort that, this time around, the media are keeping in check the urge to cry “Racism!”
No, it’s not progress at all.

It’s just the fact that about half of the churches recently burned in Alabama were obviously white, and that has penetrated the consciousness of the media.

In 1996, there were fewer faces associated with the fires, and much more room to selectively report fires at black churches.

So how did the “black churches being burned” myth get started? Michael Fumento, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, explained the process.
It turns out the main source is the Center for Democratic Renewal, a group whose mission, says its promotional literature, is to work “with progressive activists and organizations to build a movement to counter right-wing rhetoric and public policy initiatives.” Originally called the National Anti-Klan Network, it changed its name when the Klan largely fell apart in the 1980s. But instead of seeing that as a sign of declining bigotry, the CDR has continued for more than a decade to issue statements and reports “discovering” a sudden resurgence in racist activity.

The CDR’s agenda goes well beyond rooting out genuine bigotry; the group tars mainstream conservatives with the same brush as racist criminals. “There’s only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning,” the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the CDR’s chairman, has said. Liberals like Jesse Jackson and Mary Frances Berry, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, have picked up the theme.
But what about the facts about the fires?
The CDR claims there have been 90 arsons against black churches in nine Southern states since 1990, and that the number has risen each year, reaching 35 in 1996 as of June 18. Each and every culprit “arrested and/or detained,” it stresses, has been white.

But when I contacted law enforcement officials in several states on the CDR list, a very different picture emerged. The CDR, it turns out, regularly ignored fires set by blacks and those that occurred in the early part of the decade, and labeled fires as arsons that were not – all in an apparent effort to make black church torchings appear to be escalating.
  • South Carolina. This state has by far the most arsons on the CDR list (27). But seven of those fires were either found not to be arsons or have not had their causes determined, according to Chief Robert Stewart of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in Columbia. (In a note, the CDR’s report admits that two of the 27 fires were probably not arsons, but insists they are still suspicious. It makes no mention of the other five.) Moreover, far from all the arsonists having been white, eight of 18 arrested in South Carolina were black. While it’s not clear that all these arrests were made in time to make the CDR’s report, two were arrested more than a year ago.
  • Georgia. Of the five fires the CDR lists as black church arsons, only two can be confirmed as such, says John Bankhead, public affairs officer at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. And one of those occurred at a church where “the congregation has about 1,000 members, of whom about a dozen are black.” What’s more, Mr. Bankhead’s records include one black church arson from 1995 that the CDR’s report omitted. The arsonist was black.
  • Alabama. The CDR lists 10 church fires, all between 1994 and 1996. But State Fire Marshal John Robison says that only one of these was a confirmed arson (the perpetrator being a white fireman). One fire was determined to have been an accident, another is too recent to be classified, and four are being treated as possible arsons but are as yet undetermined. That leaves three more incidents on the CDR’s list of “Southern States Black Church Burnings” for Alabama. All were in Sumter County in February 1994. The Sumter County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that none were fires but rather vandalism. The CDR’s claim they were arson, I was told, was “a bald-faced lie.” Surprisingly, the CDR omitted one bona fide 1994 black church arson in which the culprits were white. It also left out two 1994 arsons committed by blacks. (One of them was the pastor of the church.) Moreover, the group left out 10 black church arsons that took place before 1994, again creating the illusion that the burning of black churches is a recent phenomenon.
  • Mississippi. Of nine Mississippi fires in the CDR’s report, only three are confirmed arsons, says James Ingram, commissioner of public safety. And while the CDR reports no black church fires before 1993, Mr. Ingram’s list includes five between 1990 and 1992. One was committed by a black man; in another, black church members were suspected. Two of the Mississippi fires the CDR lists occurred this June 17; Mr. Ingram says they were clearly “copycat” crimes, spurred by the recent publicity.
As another source points out:
Even in the South, there is no evidence from the task force that black churches were more vulnerable than white churches. According to the [Federal] task force, 44 percent of church arsons in the South were at black churches, and 56 percent were at white churches. But approximately 40 percent of Southern churches are predominantly black.

Of the 136 people arrested for arsons at black churches, 85 were white, 50 were black, and one was Hispanic. Thirty-seven whites were charged with hate crimes because there was evidence of a racial motivation for their attack upon black churches. Only six of those 37 had ties to an organized hate group. The majority of church arsonists of all races seem to have been motivated by pyromania, vandalism, burglary, or insurance fraud.

It’s hard to call the church-arson story of 1996 a complete fraud. Yes, black churches were burned and continue to burn. And yes, some arsonists have been motivated by racial hatred. But there is no compelling evidence to show that black churches were any more vulnerable to attack over the last decade than non-black churches.
And indeed, as the Alabama church burnings show, no evidence to think that racial hatred is more of a problem than anti-Christian hatred.

It’s a classic example of media bias. The media hyped the “racists are burning black churches” theme because it fits the template. It’s fun to pretend it’s still 1963.

They downplay the hate crime angle in the Alabama arsons because it doesn’t fit the template. Christians (especially conservative Christians) cannot be victims of hatred. They are the bigots. Any evidence to the contrary has to be ignored.

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