Prisons are hotbeds of racism, hatred

June 17, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

Rigor mortis hadn't even set on James Byrd when Jesse Jackson blew into Jasper, Texas, to shed crocodile tears for the victim and his family.

Byrd is the black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death June 7. Three white men suspected of having sympathies with the Ku Klux Klan and other white hate groups have been arrested and charged in the slaying. President Clinton has expressed his outrage. The national media are having hissy fits, as if murder is somehow an anomaly in America.

Or is it the color of the victim? Byrd's murder has been called a hate crime, which it surely was. But whites and Asians have been victims of hate crimes. When the suspects are black, no one dares call it a hate crime. In today's America, the color of the victim - and the victimizers - determines how we'll react to particular story.

What was Jackson doing at this time about two years ago? He was in Baltimore, pleading the case of a black convicted cop killer named Flint Gregory Hunt. He visited Hunt and his family and urged that Hunt not be executed for killing Vincent Adolfo, a white police officer who was slain in the line of duty.

Jackson didn't visit the Adolfo family. It's safe to say that Jackson bases his sympathy strictly on the color of the victim. But a visit to the families of the three men charged in Byrd's murder is in order for the Good Revvum Jackson. And remember, Revvum, you're against the death penalty and should be in this case.

Jackson won't do that, of course. From his lofty moral perch, blacks can't be haters, only victims. That, indeed, is the constant mantra we've been hearing since Byrd's murder: that white racism and hatred are alive and well in America.

Ronald King, the father of suspect John King, even wrote his son a letter questioning where the younger King acquired his hatred. Part of the answer lies in America's centuries-long tradition of Negrophobia, which we have arrogantly assumed a couple of civil rights bills passed in the 1960s would somehow magically extinguish. But there's another answer. Could John King have picked up his hatred of blacks in, oh, prison maybe?

Years ago, I kept frequent correspondence with my cousin Louis Floyd when he was doing time at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. For a short time, he returned to Baltimore to testify in another case and had a brief sojourn in what was then the city jail but what we now, with classic linguistic inefficiency, call the Baltimore City Detention Center. I still remember one letter he sent from there.

"One thing I can say about this place is that the brothers run it," Louis wrote. "Whitey goes through hell in here."

I was unclear whether Louis thought I would take some perverse racial pride in that dreadful state of affairs. But I remember wondering what happens when one of the "whiteys" - probably filled with hatred for all blacks because of the hell he had been put through in city jail - gets out and takes his revenge on some unsuspecting and unoffending black on the street.

Would not the "brothers" running city jail and putting whitey through hell be partly to blame?

The three suspects in Byrd's murder all had been in prison, where, according to news reports, they had their first contacts with the KKK and the Aryan Nations. American prisons are hotbeds of racism and racial strife. It's been that way for years. George Jackson, the African-American prison activist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, wrote about it years ago.

"They call themselves 'Hitler's Helpers,' " Jackson wrote of white inmates with racist beliefs. Jackson charged that in the California prison system of his time, guards would help foment racial incidents. In one, three black inmates were placed in a yard with some white ones. Of course, a fight broke out. A guard shot and killed the three black inmates. Prison officials ruled the deaths justifiable. Jackson and two others responded to the ruling by heaving a guard from a top tier to his death.

And so it goes in America's prisons: guards vs. inmates, inmates vs. guards, inmates vs. inmates in a never-ending cycle of violence. Most of these inmates are then released back into society, where we expect them somehow to have purged themselves of racism and taken vows of pacifism.

If we see only racism and a hate crime committed in the gruesome slaying of James Byrd, we will be ignoring an even larger question: What can we do to keep America's prisons from slithering further into the cesspools of hatred and violence they have become?

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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