Panel Tackles Issues of Race

Mike Seccombe, MVGazette (Edgartown, Massachusetts), August 14. 2009

The myth that America has somehow become post-racial with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency was most succinctly nailed by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, in a fire and brimstone address at the regional high school on Wednesday.

“There is one black man in the White House and a million black men in prison,” he thundered.

The big question, though, for Reverend Rivers, along with 30-odd other speakers–judges, lawyers, academics, media personalities, a couple of actors and a Congressman–was who bears the responsibility for that, and all the other manifestations of continuing black disadvantage in America.

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The consensus was that the cause of the problems of continuing black disadvantage were a mix of personal and structural, with the emphasis on the structural. But the solution would depend most heavily on individuals, particularly those members of the black community described by Reverend Rivers as “high and lifted up.”

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He attacked–there is no other word for it–the black elite “who celebrate themselves” while ignoring the plight of “the wretched of the earth.”

As evidence of the black elite’s self-concern, he cited its focus on the recent arrest of Harvard Prof. Henry Louis (Skip) Gates in Cambridge.

Yet just five days after that, a young black girl was shot in her home when “an AK 47 was used by a 17-year-old terrorist” to spray a city building with bullets. One of them passed through three walls before hitting the girl.

“There was not one word said. There were no invitations to the White House,” he said.

“All across this country, the black underclass is suffering. There’s been no discourse or conversation about our moral responsibility to those whom we left behind. Shame on us, after we’ve achieved everything we’ve achieved.

“The great moral challenge for black America is not about a black in the White House, but we reconcile with the fact that there are now two separate black nations: those who live and die in the ghetto and those of us who celebrate our beauty. . . .”

He warned that within a decade those ghettos could produce unimaginable problems. He suggested home-grown terrorism. Saudi Arabian money was financing Wahabist Islam chaplaincies in inner cities and jails, to politicize alienated young black men.

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Reggie Walton, a judge of the U.S. District Court, said Reverend Rivers had his numbers wrong: in reality there were probably two million black men locked up on any given day in one penal institution or another.

As evidence of the structural unfairness of the justice system, he noted the disparity between the sentences imposed for possession of crack cocaine–mostly used by people of color–and powder cocaine–mostly used by whites.

He admitted to being a tough-sentencing judge, but said he also was troubled by such unfairnesses in the system.

Another federal judge, Nancy Gertner, noted such unfairness was inseparable from politics.

What she called “the greatest incarceration of African-Americans since reconstruction” had served to “de-racialize the race debate” by redefining imprisonment–which results in most cases with a denial of voting rights–not as an issue of civil rights anymore, but simply as a matter of “these people are bad,” she said.

And Democratic Cong. Barney Frank pushed the political aspect one step further, arguing political conservatives used race as a weapon in their efforts to maintain inequities which affect not only black Americans, but all Americans.

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