Immediate reaction to the guilty verdict of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin included something that never occurred to me during the trial – race.
With the breaking news of the Nagin conviction, I was asked to join Bobby Hebert and Deke Bellavia on “Sports Talk” on WWL yesterday to deal with some of the reaction to the guilty verdict. The first caller was from a woman who said that the former mayor could not have gotten a fair trial because the jury was predominately white – 9 white jurors, 2 Asian and 1 African-American.
Another caller mentioned race when commenting on the conviction and went so far as to bring up the trial of the white Los Angeles police officers who were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King in the federal trial. In the middle of a sports talk show, reaction to the conviction of a former black mayor was inspiring the playing of the race card.
I am rarely surprised when race comes up as the reason or the excuse for the results of a verdict or an unfortunate incident, but I was surprised that race came up in the reaction to the conviction of Ray Nagin.
Even before the reaction I heard while on WWL, I was not expecting the verbal ranting in the presence of the live TV cameras outside of the courthouse. A woman known to be a local activist was trying to shout comments that would become part of the reporters’ live coverage. Most of what she was shouting was inaudible, but the few things I picked up were that Ray Nagin was a “scapegoat” and there was a comment about the white system of justice’s unfair treatment of blacks. The woman’s rants also appeared to be laced with profanity. Eventually, U.S. marshals defused the situation.
Ray Nagin was supported by white and black voters and was elected and re-elected with a hope of change and race did not seem to define Nagin. What did define Nagin was the arrogant use of position and power for personal gain, and that transcends race.
Our system of justice is not fair and it is not blind. Facts seem to support conventional wisdom that blacks, especially young black males, and minorities are disproportionately convicted and sent to prison. Even if those groups are committing a disproportionate number of crimes, the conviction rate of poor minorities in America proves that justice is not fair. Justice seems to discriminate more against economic status than race, but blacks and other minorities without the means to pay for the best defense may be even more prone to being convicted.
Consider the recent case of a white male teenager from a very wealthy family, who was sentenced to probation and time in a posh rehab facility in California as a consequence for killing 4 people while driving drunk. Do you think a poor, inner city black teenager would have received the same lenient sentence? It’s also fair to question if a less affluent white teenager would have escaped jail time. The defense argued that the teenage defendant suffered from “affluenza” – a condition of being from a wealthy family that did not set proper limits for their son.
Race is also an issue in the case of Michael Dunn, a white 47-year-old man who is on trial in Jacksonville, FL for shooting and killing an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager following an argument over loud rap music. In talking about this case on “The Scoot Show” on WWL, I have received calls and texts from a few people who appear to excuse the white man’s frustration because he, like many, was just “fed up with the thugs and their music.” That is a very scary and very real attitude in America that encourages and justifies violence. The suggestion is that if you are “fed up” with the attitude of blacks or anyone – you are justified in killing them!
This week, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said in a speech to a university that “we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school.” He continued, “Now, name a day [race] doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive.”
As a talk show host, I witness America’s sensitivity about race, sexual orientation, class and countless other factors that separate us into groups on almost every show I do and it is sad that my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, that once helped spark the crusade for total equality among all during the 60s and 70s, is now so actively keeping judgment based on race and sexual orientation an integral part of so many of today’s debates.
The media and both parties have benefited from racism. The media attracts attention from the heated battles that erupt over race and as a result will always accentuate race as a factor in any debate when possible. In the 1960s, Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater used integration to instill fear that white America, particularly in the South, would lose status in society. Governor George Wallace was actually a moderate Republican. Wallace lost his first campaign to become governor of Alabama and changed to reflect the South’s fear of integration by becoming a staunch segregationist.
The strategy of attracting votes based on the loss white’s would suffer from equality was known as the “Southern Strategy” and has remained as part of the strategy of some candidates. The “us-against-them” mentality rallies many voters around certain candidates who speak in code, rather than blatant language, about preferential treatment of blacks.
Racism is not as physically present as it once was, but there is a strong undercurrent of racism from both sides that has become instinctive. It doesn’t matter if there are more white racists or black racists in America – the point is that racism is prevalent and wrong. What will it take to get over the tendency to play the race card, even when race is not a factor?
America is still not ready for an honest conversation about race relations because people are more interested in finding things that support their preconceived notions rather than attempt to seek a true understanding of the other side’s position.
We are all entitled to our perception of life, but perception is not always reality and often should be recognized as only perception. I speak and observe from my point-of-view and it’s important for me to try to understand another person’s point-of-view that has been formed by their experiences in life if there is to be any honest conversation about race.
Intolerance is less demanding than tolerance. Intolerance requires no effort – tolerance requires an effort to listen and understand those who have a different perspective on life. And understanding that our perspective is not the only perspective may be the first step in starting an honest conversation about race.
The automatic assumption that former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did not get a fair trial because only one juror was black suggests that all whites are racist and incapable of fairly judging a person of color.
With recognition of past and current injustices, it is wrong to imply that a white jury cannot fairly judge a black defendant - or that a black jury could not fairly judge a white defendant, but until our instinctive reaction that race is a mitigating factor, we will continue to support racism in America.