Black crime and the Darden dilemma

February 09, 1996|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Pity poor Robert L. Grace Jr. He's the co-prosecutor in the case of rap star Snoop Doggy Dogg, a.k.a. Calvin Broadus, who is on trial for murder in Los Angeles.

It would be tough enough under any circumstances for Deputy District Attorney Grace, 35, to go up against the high-powered legal talent that a well-heeled defendant like Snoop Doggy Dogg can afford. But it doubles the burden for Mr. Grace that he is a black man prosecuting a black man in Los Angeles in 1996. After the racial tensions surrounding Rodney King, Reginald Denny and O.J. Simpson, Mr. Grace's skin color puts him on a tightrope, torn by conflicting loyalties to blacks, whites and the criminal-justice system.

Snoop Doggy Dogg, 24, is a folk hero in the hip-hop culture. His 1993 debut album ''Doggystyle'' has sold 4.7 million copies. Snoop Dogg is the epitome of high hip-hop art, an art form whose attractiveness for young people is based, like most youth arts, on its ability to outrage community elders. That puts Snoop presumably on the side of the young, vibrant and cool and Mr. Grace on the side of racists, Republicans and fuddy-duddies.

Bitter feelings have grown more intense in recent years as conservative legislators have passed tougher sentencing laws, particularly in drug cases. As a result, nearly half the nation's jailed inmates are black, even though blacks account for only 10 percent of the general population. And, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration, one in three black men in their 20s is in jail, on probation or on parole, up from one in four in 1990.

In the criminal court building where the rapper's fans line the hallways seeking the star, Snoop Doggy Dogg gets cheers, while Mr. Grace is about to be inducted as the community's next outcast, ''sellout'' or ''Uncle Tom,'' now that the headlines no longer offer up Christopher Darden, the black co-prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Grace compared his situation to that of Mr. Darden and said it was not fun. ''Every African-American district attorney faces the 'Darden dilemma,' '' he said. ''Because of the sheer numbers of black men and women being locked up, when you take this job you ask yourself, 'Is this the best thing I could be doing for my community?' ''

Cheer up. You could do worse.

For one thing, crime fighting helps communities. No community benefits from having murderers running around loose, committing mayhem and making it hard for law-abiding citizens to shop, go to school or earn a living in peace and safety.

An earned sensitivity

For another thing, who is better suited to be sensitive to justice for the poor or the non-white than someone like Robert Grace, who grew up in a poor black neighborhood not unlike that of the worst-off defendants he prosecutes?

Besides, would it be a greater service to the black community to let a suspect go free, as if justice for the victim -- a black victim in this case -- didn't matter?

When people say good men like Mr. Grace are traitors to the black community, I wonder which ''community'' they are talking about. It is a myth -- a dangerous, racist myth -- that black people are soft on crime. Quite the opposite, black people are generally quite tough on crime. After all, they are more likely to be its victims. Just ask the young black males who have been swelling the rolls in prisons in recent years. Most were sent there by black jurors.

The lesson: Do the right thing. If you think you have a case, argue it. Those who would accuse Mr. Grace or any black prosecutor of washing the community's dirty laundry in public should ask themselves the question a senior black journalist once put to me: ''Do you really want to leave the wash to somebody else's laundry?''

The real problem is that many, perhaps most, black Americans believe that America's criminal-justice system works, but that it has not worked for them. Their certainty is based on their experiences, and quite often their assessment is shockingly accurate. One need look no further than the much-touted war on drugs to see a demonstrably different impact along racial lines, simply because it punishes possession of crack cocaine, which mostly is used by blacks, far more severely than powder cocaine, mostly used by whites.

Conservative members of Congress acknowledge the discrepancy, but also have declined to do anything about it. Would they move so slowly, I wonder, if the discrepancy was tilted in the other direction, if whites were getting the short end of justice?

No wonder so many of the African Americans who hold just under 800 of the prosecutor jobs in the nation -- or about 3.5 percent -- feel so lonely. They're not getting backup. They're just getting backlash.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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