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WEB POSTED 12-07-1999
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Texas Dragging death conviction doesn't mean U.S. has a commitment to end oppression

by Richard Muhammad

With the last of three white men accused of dragging James Byrd, Jr., to death on a rural East Texas road a year ago convicted and sentenced to life in prison, many will quickly say here’s proof America is on the right path—we haven’t gotten there yet but we’re on the way. The only problem is such conclusions aren’t true and ignore how American racism operates on the eve of the 21st Century.

Like some ancient cultures, America needs a scapegoat and those who go outside the current mode for dealing with Black people are condemned—not because they are wrong but because their tactics are out of step with time.

That doesn’t mean that Shawn Allen Berry, 24, doesn’t deserve his life sentence for his role in the Byrd murder. He deserves life and some argue he should have received the death penalty.

It does mean a single case doesn’t change 400 years of oppression Blacks have suffered, nor the underlying danger of racism in American society.

Mr. Berry and his role in the heinous murder of Mr. Byrd can’t be held up as a negative mirror image that white America can repudiate, and claim undue racial progress. "We don’t chain people to the back of pick-ups and drag them to their deaths. We don’t tolerate racial crimes, the man was convicted," white America will say.

Given this country’s history, any conviction of a white man for violence against a Black person is a victory. But then today outright mob violence against Blacks is seen as outmoded, messy and likely to incite a reaction. The modern method is to use the criminal justice, economic and social systems to keep Blacks in their place.

Just think, if Berry had been a police officer and Byrd had died during a traffic stop, what are the odds that there would have even been a trial?

Police abuses occur daily from routine traffic stops that escalate into deadly confrontations, to evidence planting and general disrespect and harassment. Usually, little or nothing is said. In most cases, the media starts to carry the "unofficial" pro-police linebased on "leaks." Stories detail any problem the accused civilian may have had, while the officers often remain anonymous, their past misdeeds unmentioned. This only changes when it becomes obvious that the cop or cops involved had a problem and the affected communities just won’t let the issue die. But you find few initial questions about police conduct no matter how bizarre the "official" explanation.

In the rare cases where a cop is convicted, the tales of his stress and frustration pour out, as if to justify wrong and often illegal acts. The disparity doesn’t only happen in law enforcement.

Actually things have been so bad jobwise that the National Urban League’s State of Black America 1999 notes, "Persistent racial gaps leave African-American unemployment at levels typical of recessions for white America." In other words, bad times for whites are just normal times for Black folk.

In addition, the Urban League found Black unemployment still remains twice that of whites. Remember, these revelations were found in a report that cited some Black economic progress.

Urban schools have less qualified teachers, Black students lag behind whites students in test scores, and teachers in urban schools make 25 percent less than their suburban and rural counterparts, the Urban League found.

On the health front, doctors don’t treat Black patients as aggressively as whites and Black-urban neighborhoods are disproportionately located near toxic waste facilities. High Black HIV-infection rates and the high number of Black women who die during childbirth are other examples of the Black-white health gap.

But police brutality, economic inequality, education gaps and racial disparity in health status will never make America angry because whites make the decisions that keep the disparity in place. It gives them an advantage and protects what the Urban League dubbed "racial privilege" in a "racialized society."

Even in the Berry case, the media has played up his "young" age, the suffering of his parents, his girlfriend’s tears, his failures in high school and at jobs, and his associating with the wrong crowd. All of this helped paint a more humane picture of him, a picture that is rarely, if ever, painted of troubled young Black males from the ghetto—or a Black Michigan boy who fatally shot someone at age 11.

Besides, Berry’s family gets to visit him; James Byrd’s family can only look at his picture and visit his grave. It’s not a trade that the Byrd family, nor Black America, would consider near even.

(Richard Muhammad is the managing editor of The Final Call. He can be reached via email at finalcall@compuserve.com, or at straightwords2@yahoo.com.)


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