Friday, January 11, 2008

Race Playas

As I prepare to attend the Black Men's Gathering in Michigan that I mentioned in my last post, it is ironic what is unfolding in my own back yard. Check this out in the New York Times:

BARNSTABLE, Mass. — More than a year after it convicted a black trash hauler of a shocking murder on Cape Cod, a jury returned to court here Thursday for an extraordinary hearing on whether racism influenced its verdict.

The defendant in that trial, Christopher M. McCowen, is serving a life sentence for raping and killing Christa Worthington, a white fashion writer from a wealthy family, at her bungalow in Truro in 2002. But three jurors now say that others made racist remarks during the trial; if Judge Gary A. Nickerson of Barnstable Superior Court finds those contentions credible, he could order a new trial.

Judge Nickerson questioned 7 of the 14 jurors on Thursday, calling them into the courtroom one at a time and asking whether the issue of race came up during their deliberations. Some of the jurors’ answers contradicted those of others, and many said their memories of the deliberations, which took place in November 2006, were vague.

Most of the testimony Thursday concerned comments that the only black woman on the jury, Roshena Bohanna, said she heard two white jurors make.

One of those jurors remarked that the bruises on Ms. Worthington’s body, as seen in evidence photographs, were consistent with “if a big black man hit her,” Ms. Bohanna testified. (Read the whole thing here).

There is so much that could be said about the issues raised in this case but I'll only comment on a couple of things. First, like the iconic black, unwed, teenage mother I mentioned in a previous post, the sexually predatory black male is a similar fixture in popular culture and the psyche of more than a few white Americans. This caricature of black masculinity has been prominent in racist fantasies since slavery. While it is certainly possible that this brother committed the heinous crime that he has been accused of, there is just too much history tangled up in this situation to ignore the possibility that his race may have played a role in his guilty verdict. That the court is at least willing to consider the legal implications of this possibility is encouraging whatever the outcome. It is an opportunity to put racial discrimination in the criminal justice system on trial so to speak. Second, is the accusation that the African American female juror who challenged the alleged racial remarks made by fellow jurors was "playing the race card". This is one of the more irritating phrases that has crept into public discourse regarding race in the past few decades. It's a bit like "reverse discrimination" an equally irritating phrase. What exactly are people saying when they refer to so called "playing the race card"? I think that the implication is that someone is manipulating race to gain some kind of advantage. Let's examine this for a moment. Ever notice that playing the race card is something that only minorities are accused of? As if whites don't also manipulate race to their own advantage! Secondly, the race card rhetoric implies that racism is not really so bad anymore so if someone refers to it in discussing a problem that they are just playing some kind of game. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary to accept such a viewpoint. This is not to deny that there are people, black, white and every other color who play games with race in our society. However, such people are simply a symptom of a deeper problem, which is that we are still living with the legacy of white supremacy. Race is not a card to be played but is deeply embedded within the structures of our society in such a way that a person's skin color continues to influence their quality of life. Changing this situation will involve at least the following:

"Let neither (whites nor blacks) think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country."
(Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 40)

"Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind -- the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve-- is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. It does not constitute merely the enunciation of an ideal, but stands inseparably associated with an institution adequate to embody its truth, demonstrate its validity, and perpetuate its influence. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced."
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 42)