STILL SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE
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
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
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 [email protected],
or at [email protected].)