At first blush, it’s the kind of story made for the insta-news cycle of 21st-century media: a mother picking up her kid up from school in Brooklyn spots a rooftop sniper, throws herself into the line of fire to protect a group of schoolkids and, while saving them, is shot and killed herself.
Most likely, if Zurana Horton were white and blonde, she would have been catapulted to the top of the news, her short and tragic story the stuff of People magazine covers and breathless segments on the Today show. After all, we’re a society obsessed with the stories of pretty white women and girls who come up missing or dead. Witness the endless coverage over Natalee Holloway, or Caylee Anthony, or the scary story du jour: missing baby Lisa.
But Horton, who was 34, was neither white nor blonde nor particularly photogenic: the first published picture of her was a blurry shot where large sunglasses obscured most of her smiling face. Nor did she have the kind of squeaky-clean narrative that fits easily into the feel-good story mould. She was poor, unmarried and the mother of 13; she lived in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s most notorious neighbourhoods. And she was black. On Monday, police charged three youths with the shooting.
Instead of being heralded for her bravery, Horton’s life is currently being held up for scrutiny and debate in the blogosphere. A typical post – Laurence Scott, a commenter on Global Grind, writes: “13 kids and pregnant and living in public housing. WOW. Rome is burning.” Meanwhile, on the New York Daily News site, commenters attack her – and each other – with ferocity. “I wonder how much of my tax money, both NY and federal, is going to go to supporting those 13 kids for the next several decades,” writes one commenter. “Hero? She would have been a hero if she had stopped at 2, at least to the rest of society that now has to pay for their welfare, education, Medicaid, food stamps.”
On The Root, an African-American website published by the Washington Post (full disclosure: I am the site’s senior editor), some took the “blame the victim” route. Writes WandaDoesIt: “Where it is OK for unmarred [sic] women to have 13 fatherless children can pretty much expect to have boys and young men shooting up the place … It is so tragic, but we can’t disconnect how she died from how she lived.” Then there’s BLKSeaGoat, who writes: “Her death was sad and the act heroic, but given the demographics of the neighborhood, coupled with the fact that she was working on her 13th [sic] child, can anyone honestly belive [sic] that this outcome wasn’t to be expected?”
Early reports that Horton was pregnant when she was killed didn’t help matters (according to the Daily News, the medical examiner on the case disputed those reports). The image of a black woman living in the projects and working on baby No 14 conjures old, hoary stereotypes of the fecund “welfare queen” vilified by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who liked to talk about how the welfare queen had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 social security cards, and collected benefits for “four nonexisting deceased husbands”, scamming the welfare system out of “over $150,000”.
As it turns out, Reagan’s queen didn’t exist; it is believed that he based his story on news reports at the time of a woman with two aliases who bilked the government out of $8,000. But fictional or not, she lives on in the psyche of the American public, her spectre hovering over news stories about a blameless Brooklyn mom who just happened to be at the right – and wrong – place at the right and wrong time.
There’s nothing like the internet to highlight just how far we haven’t come in this allegedly “post-racial” era of ours. Race is such a lightning rod, still, and the relative anonymity of the wild, wild web seems to unleash the worst in many of us. More often than not, our racial anxieties get played out in the comments sections. It’s interesting to note that Horton’s personal history came under attack from commenters of all races – black, white and other. Horton’s story becomes a kind of racial Rorschach blot, with everyone projecting his or her own fears and biases on to her tragedy.
Our willingness to judge Zurana Horton and find her wanting says a lot more about us than it does about this one heroic woman’s life.