The black hole

November 15, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

IN DESCRIBING the mental state of Susan Smith, spokesman Hugh Munn of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said: "Her whole world was collapsing around her. She was staring into a black hole."

Given the horror of Ms. Smith's murder of her two sons, Mr. Munn intended no irony or pun. But his words aptly described the collective pathology of Ms. Smith and white America. As her world collapsed, she reached into the black hole and pulled out a black man. A carjacker took my kids! Presto! She was no longer a textile mill secretary earning barely above minimum wage. She became the fairest victim in the land, the tragic Cinderella with express horse and buggy to the "Today" show.

Ms. Smith understood that white people are quicker to scapegoat African-Americans than take responsibility for bad situations. "It did make her story seem more likely," said a white psychologist, Louise Taylor of Mount Pleasant, S.C. "I guess there's that typical profile of the old bad black guy. We're just too ready to accept that."

To white Americans, the profile is part of everyday discourse. George Bush put a black face on crime with Willie Horton. Bill Clinton put a black face on crime with Rickey Ray Rector. By focusing so much on crime, politicians made last Tuesday's elections a referendum on who could best squash the black face.

When politicians demand the death penalty, they demand a racist system. It is no accident that the crime Ms. Smith chose to highlight, carjacking, is now an offense punishable by the death penalty, while politicians deleted from the crime bill any chance for defendants to challenge death sentences on the basis of race. While most murderers kill someone of their own color, 83 percent of the African Americans on death row are there for killing white Americans. When politicians demand more prisons, they call for this nation to lock up African Americans at seven times the rate of whites. Nearly half of those jailed are locked up for drug offenses. This is racist, since whites consume 80 percent of illegal drugs, their share of the U.S. population.

Whites are 80 percent of the people, yet the largely white crime and incompetence that gave us a massive deficit, Wall Street scandals, a savings-and-loan crisis, the health-care crisis and a mind set that puts military spending first, education last and gives us the most guns per person in the developed world is not a hot-button issue.

No, it's crime, even though crime is down in 20 of 22 cities surveyed by the New York City Police Department. No. It's Latino immigration and Haitian refugees, even though most Americans are not about to pick tomatoes or clean toilets. No. It's social spending, even though it costs four times more per person for prisons than schools. No. It's welfare queens and quota queens. It's Louis Farrakhan and Marion Barry. Few stories suggest that Oliver North's embrace of the Confederate flag fans the flames of racial hatred.

In Boston, when 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan was buried on Nov. 6, an African-American victim of African-American violence, the eulogies became a confession of a crisis of black leadership. "The chain is broken, not only in their family, but in our community," said Rev. Ray Hammond.

White society would have expected Mr. Hammond to say nothing less. Yet no sentiment was expressed at the funerals of Michael and Alexander Smith about broken chains and bankrupt leadership in the white community. There were good things about the cracking of the Smith case. Police did not run roughshod through African-American neighborhoods to find her fictional carjacker. This was unlike Boston in 1989, when African-American men, even in business suits, were stopped and frisked wholesale after Charles Stuart said a black man shot him and his wife.

But such moderation by the police did not keep accusation from eating at the fabric of life in Union, S.C. "They slowed down and looked at you," Lamont Cheek, 17, said. "It was like all the white people were wondering if you were the guy." Jesse Glen, 38, who owns a Mazda that looked like Ms. Smith's car, said, "The white people's necks were all turning as we drove by. You see the look. You know what it means. . . . That look is what racism is all about."

Even after confessing to a heinous crime, Susan Smith is still the princess, receiving media treatment no African-American murderer could expect. All we hear now is "Woe is me. I only wanted to be rich." She is now seen as so "troubled" that even relatives of the dead boys do not want her executed. "She is just a very disturbed person," said Rebbeca Smith, sister of David Smith, Susan's estranged husband.

No one asks if African-American killers are despondent over lack of economic hope. No sir. They are just savages who need to be fried.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for Boston Globe.

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