In what’s perhaps the best book written on the subject of race, intolerance, and mob justice, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird homes in on the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by a white girl and her family. A white lawyer in town — Atticus Finch — steps up, and to the dismay of his white neighbors, takes Robinson’s case. Finch does his best to prove the innocence of his client beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I am confident that you will review, without passion, the evidence you have heard, and come to a decision, and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty,” Gregory Peck, playing Atticus in the movie version, urged the all-white jury in his closing statement.
The facts didn’t matter. The jury found Tom Robinson guilty of rape despite the evidence. He was guilty of being a black man.
In Ferguson the past two weeks, amid all of the legitimate criticism of local law enforcement’s heavy-handed tactics and ham-handed communications, I was waiting for one Atticus Finch–like black voice to emerge from the cast of characters who converged on Ferguson. Waiting for one person — particularly from the civil-rights establishment — to make the case that the man who shot Michael Brown had civil rights of his own, a right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence among them.
I was waiting for one black TV anchor or media pundit or black leader to push back against the mob-justice mentality and dare to suggest that maybe — just maybe — Officer Darren Wilson wasn’t guilty of a crime. That something terrible happened on that street in Ferguson, but it might not lead to a criminal conviction.
I was waiting for one courageous black person to talk about Michael Brown’s disturbing conduct in that bodega minutes before his death. Really talk about it. The 18-year-old didn’t just steal cigars from that store. He did it at 11:40 a.m., got caught by the owner, and rather than apologize and give the cigars back, got in the owner’s face and pushed him. “Big Mike” bullied that store owner and headed out the door. That was no ordinary case of shoplifting we watched. It was a video of a young man with no boundaries.
I was waiting for someone who wasn’t white to point out that maybe Michael Brown’s conduct had something do with the tragic events that led to his death. That maybe – just maybe — he bore some responsibility for his own death.
The fact is that for all the talk about racial sensitivity and racial understanding, for far too many black people in this country, that white officer is guilty of a crime no matter what a jury says. And far too many white people will think Officer Wilson is innocent of a crime, no matter what a jury says.
That’s the racial divide a Pew Poll exposed last week. It turns out that 80 percent of African Americans believe the case raises important issues about race, compared with only 37 percent of whites. African Americans were twice as likely to believe the police response was excessive.
But here’s one question Pew didn’t ask: If Officer Wilson had been black, would we have heard the outcry in those streets?
Do the media really care if one black man — with a badge or without — guns down another black man? If George Zimmerman had been black — instead of a “white Hispanic” — would the media have shown up in force?
It’s a brand of racism that nobody’s talking about, because it showcases America’s disregard for black life. We value the deaths of black people only when a white person is involved.
It happens every day across America without fanfare: Young black men murder young black men, and there’s hardly a peep from anyone.
Why didn’t America hear about the senseless execution of a 9-year-old black boy in Chicago last week? Or the eight black men and three black women killed the week before last in the Windy City alone?
Where’s the outrage? Where are the black leaders? And white leaders too? And where’s the media?
The world knows Michael Brown’s name. And Trayvon Martin’s. But they should know Antonio Smith’s, too.
He was the aforementioned 9-year-old boy from Chicago. Antonio called his mom on the afternoon of August 21 while she was on her way home from work and asked to have a cupcake. She said no. So the 9-year-old got mad and ran out of his family’s apartment. He never came home.
Witnesses heard six shots fired not long after Antonio left his home. It was 4:05 p.m. — broad daylight. Antonio’s body was found not long after those reports, and not far from his house on a concrete slab. It was a few feet from railroad tracks that have long acted as a dividing line between rival gangs.
“My boy, he was an angel,” his mother Brandi Murry told a local reporter. Nicknamed Hamburger after his love of the sandwich, Antonio loved to dance to Chris Brown songs. “He loved telling jokes,” his mom added. “All he did was joke and laugh and play.”
Antonio was shot in the chest, hands, and arms. One bullet pierced his heart. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and an hour later was pronounced dead.
“I’m just going to put them in my prayers,” a friend of Antonio’s family told reporters. “Everybody’s killing each other.”
Police have no leads in Antonio’s murder. But one thing is near certain: A white person didn’t commit this crime. And that doesn’t interest the national media or our national leaders — black or white.
Tragically, Antonio’s death doesn’t interest most white Americans, either. But when young white kids are killed by white assailants like they were in Newtown and Columbine, or young white girls are tortured and raped like they were by that white sexual predator in Ohio, the media pounces. And white Americans tune in because they see themselves on that screen.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” goes the thinking. Those kids could have been my kids. Our inner cities are Columbine and Newtown every day. It’s a national crisis — one that old adages and old slogans won’t repair.
“Blacks represent 13 percent of the population but commit 50 percent of the murders; 90 percent of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster,” wrote Joe Klein in a recent essay in Time magazine.
“Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement,” Klein continued. “These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.”
Part of that conversation must include the ways in which young black men are warehoused in inner-city jails for low-level offenses. Warehoused in dysfunctional schools that have been failing them for generations. Warehoused in dystopian housing that often looks and feels like prison, with gang members instead of corrections officers acting as the guards.
Part of that conversation must include the fact that 75 percent of African-American babies are born without fathers and how that lack of masculine love paves the path to gangs and crime and all kinds of other bad outcomes.
Part of that conversation must include the startlingly high unemployment rate of black Americans, which is twice that of whites.
And the usual bromides won’t suffice on either the left or right. By blacks or whites. One thing is certain: Young men and women staring down such bleak prospects can lose hope. They watch TV. They see the options other children have in neighborhoods not far from theirs. When young people don’t have hope, they do senseless things, especially when they think the society they live in doesn’t care whether they live or die.
In July 2004, Bill Cosby dared to speak of these matters at an NAACP celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Racism isn’t the biggest problem facing the African-American community, he told the crowd; fatherlessness is. It’s the root cause of so many of the problems that young black children face.
The fatherless numbers are rising fast in the white community, and so too are the problems and pathologies that come with it. That’s a perfect launching point for a real national dialogue on race — America’s fatherlessness epidemic. A tough talk about America’s father crisis can bridge our racial divide.
It will ruin America from within if it is not addressed head on, because we all know that so many of our social ills have this problem as the common denominator. We all know that no government program is as good as a father who loves and supports his child.
Michael Brown died tragically, and far too young. But if his death is to have any meaning, it will require real justice for young black kids who grow up with the odds terribly stacked against them. And increasingly, young white kids too.
It will require real justice for his family and for the community of Ferguson, not a whitewash by local prosecutors.
And real justice for the police officer who killed him, not mob justice.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network and a senior adviser to AmericaStrong. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.