Police in S.C. kept wits contrast Boston in '89

November 08, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

In 1989, when Charles Stuart claimed that his wife had been murdered by a black man with big lips, Boston police seemed to lose their heads. Officers fell upon black neighborhoods like gangbusters. They stopped and searched black men of all ages and descriptions -- those with big lips or otherwise. They conducted massive fishing expeditions through entire apartment complexes, looking for evidence.

It wasn't until police had latched onto a big-lipped suspect and were in the process of sweating a confession out of him that Mr. Stuart's brother suffered an attack of conscience and pointed hTC police in the right direction -- to Charles Stuart himself. The husband killed himself when police obtained a warrant for his arrest.

To their credit, police in Union, S.C., managed to keep their wits when Susan Smith, 23, reported that her two young sons had been snatched by a black man in a funny hat. Investigators did question blacks but also poked and prodded at Mrs. Smith's story until last week when she confessed to drowning her boys, an arrest warrant said.

Some people might say that police in Union were sensitive to the black community while police in Boston were not. I think the cases illustrate something more important: the difference between good detective work and bad.

Race blinded Boston police to the fundamentals of their profession; an apparently guilty man almost got away with murder. The lesson to be learned here is that racism distorts reality. It is a dead-end street, a red herring. In the end, both blacks and whites are hurt by racism.

That point was made by Derrick Bell, the best-selling author of "Faces At the Bottom of the Well," during a recent speech at the annual meeting of Associated Black Charities here. Mr. Bell is the former Harvard Law School professor who was dismissed for protesting the lack of minority women with tenure on the faculty.

Mr. Bell says blacks have become a convenient scapegoat for a number of ills. And he says blacks aren't the only ones hurt by this. "Race serves as an exploitable issue to distract those seeking social and economic power and keep them from focusing on the real problems," says Mr. Bell. "Bottom line: Racism is not only misguided, it is self-defeating."

According to Mr. Bell, some whites are encouraged to blame lay-offs on affirmative action programs rather than on the risky corporate ventures that have put so many firms deep in a financial hole. And those whites are encouraged to attribute violent crime to the lack of values in the inner city rather than to the lack of jobs, decent education and recreation.

Says Mr. Bell: "Conservative politicians rely on getting needy whites to rally around racial pride and patriotism and oppose any serious advancement for blacks. Our nation is divided along economic lines as well as racial lines. But needy whites are willing to accept serious disparities between themselves and affluent whites so long as they can remain better off than blacks and other people of color."

Mr. Bell's observations help explain the current voter unhappiness with a political system that never seems to fix anything. Using blacks as scapegoats only feeds frustration, he says, and doesn't provide solutions to problems. Mr. Bell says society should focus on its underlying inequities, create job opportunities and strengthen public schools.

Jesse Jackson, speaking at a political forum in Washington last week, put it this way: "We should be talking about raising hopes rather than fanning anger. Instead of focusing on 'Three strikes and you're out' as a reaction to crime, we should be promoting 'Four balls and you're on' as a way to prevent crime."

Right now, it seems that this kinder, gentler solution to problems is being expressed most eloquently in the black community -- either by black politicians or by politicians vying for the black vote. Yet, everyone stands to benefit.

Mr. Bell notes that the civil rights movement opened opportunities for whites as well as blacks and other minorities. "Women, the middle class, whites born on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks -- all of these benefited by the loosening of the old boy network."

His comments raise an intriguing prospect: Maybe blacks can inspire the nation again.

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