A livelihood in keeping racial issues alive

Race relations in America are generally referred to as an issue. A more apt description would be industry. In some cases (as with Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson), itís a full-fledged livelihood.
    Most people in America now recognize that not everything that happens to a black person relates to his or her skin color, but the people who get paid to explain such things arenít always possessed of the same clarity of vision. These folks could not only describe the emperorís new clothes, they could tell you that his tie doesnít match his shirt.
    A couple of race-based stories hit the newswire this week. The Federal Justice Department issued a report on the ethnic backgrounds of defendants and their victims against whom the death penalty is sought. The study showed that of the 677 defendants prosecuted for federal capital crimes, 519 of them were black and Hispanic, which led most every newspaper to run a headline along the lines of  "Racial disparities shown in federal death-penalty cases."
    The Los Angeles Times said that the study "has found that black convicts in the federal penal system face the death penalty much more often than white prisoners, confirming the arguments of those who say that capital punishment is not applied uniformly."
    Not exactly. It is true that there are more black and Hispanic defendants, but when it comes down to a federal prosecutor actually seeking the death penalty, the numbers actually show the feds are more lenient when it comes to minority defendants. The report reveals that of the 324 black defendants, the U.S. Attorney recommended the death penalty in 81 cases, or 25%. With Hispanic defendants, it was 23%. For white defendants, it was 37%.
    While it may be that federal laws are biased toward murders committed more often by minority groups (such as in the course of drug trafficking or carjackings), the 350 page document is just another foothold for the purveyors of race Ė and not much more than that. Most murders (and resulting executions) are state crimes.
    With over 20,000 homicides in America committed every year, the 677 federal prosecutions studied over a five-year period are statistically meaningless. Federal executions make up about 1% of all the death penalties carried out in the 20th century, and the federal government hasnít executed anyone since 1963.
    If there is a minority voice crying to be heard, it is that of the victims. As with state crimes, most homicides are intra-racial, with blacks killing blacks, whites killing whites and Hispanics killing Hispanics. African-Americans need protection from black criminals far more than black criminals need protection from prejudice in prosecution.
    The other story comes from Selma, Alabama, a town synonymous with the struggle for civil rights. They elected a new mayor there. The contest pitted the 36-year incumbent, 70-year-old Joe Smitherman, son of a poor single mother with 6 children against James Perkins, Jr., a 47-year old computer consultant, the son of a teacher and a nurse and a graduate of Alabama A&M University.
    Perkins won the election handily. More people in Selma voted for him than voted for the other guy. If you read about it, itís probably because Perkins is black. His victory is being heralded as a huge civil-rights victory.
    Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), hailed Perkins' election . "The defeat of Mayor Joe Smitherman after 37 years is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of Selma's black citizens and right-thinking white voters," Mfume said in a statement.
    Mfume is one of those folks who makes his living perpetuating racial divides. And so he concludes that all white people (and presumably the black people) who voted for Smitherman were "wrong- thinking." It might just be possible that Perkins was a better candidate, and the people thought it was time for a change. Selma has had a majority-black population since 1984, and Smitherman had been re-elected four times since.
    Kenneth Chenault is the President of American Express. Colin Powell was a general. Tiger Woods is a golfer. Denise Nappier is the Connecticut State Treasurer. Bernard Shaw is the lead anchorman at CNN. Venus and Serena Williams are tennis players. Oprah Winfrey is in a category all by herself, possibly the most influential person in America today.
    And they are all black. For most people, itís not an issue. The others have a vested interest in saying that it is. It is rhetoric alone which keeps Al Sharpton out of the unemployment line.

September 16, 2000