Hate crimes and the color of murder

June 06, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI -- I have no tears to shed for Terrence McCray and Ledel Lawrence.

On May 26, a jury in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled that these two young black men -- 19 and 21 years old -- were part of a mob that last summer beat to death a mentally disabled man named Gregory Griffith. Because Griffith was white.

So no; no tears for the murderers. I only want to talk about what the murder means.

It seems necessary, given the way agents of intolerance have gathered to the case like flies gather to a dung heap.

Career racist David Duke, for instance, emerged from his hole to claim Griffith's murder as rallying point for his odious cause. Then there's the e-mail that showed up in my in-box the other day, the one that referenced this case and challenged me to write "about the mass killing of whites in this country by blacks. Each year," says my correspondent, "tens of thousands more whites are killed and raped by blacks than vice versa. Isn't this a form of lynching or some kind of genocide?"

It's a claim that shows up as predictably as, well, flies on a dung heap any time there's a high-profile violent crime committed by a black person against a white one. It's also a claim that flies in the face of fact. Contrary to the picture presented nightly on Eyewitless News, violence across racial lines constitutes only a small percentage of the crime picture in this country.

According to the FBI, 94 percent of the nation's black murder victims in 1998 were killed by black assailants. Eighty-seven percent of white victims were killed by white people. As for rape: Justice Department figures indicate that 9.9 percent of white victims of that crime reported in '98 that the rapist was black. Just over 7 percent of black rape victims said the man who attacked them was white.

So it's hard to see where this supposed "lynching" comes in.

Unfortunately, logic has little to do with this. There is a need by some people to believe -- for reasons best known to them and their mental health professionals -- that any instance of black-on-white crime constitutes a de facto act of racial vengeance.

It never seems to occur to them that maybe a given black man rapes a given white woman because raping women is what he does -- not unlike the white man who does the same thing.

For the record, the FBI reports 792 actual hate crime incidents against whites in 1998. That same year saw 2,901 such incidents against blacks, a disparity made even more striking by the fact that blacks are the statistical minority.

So you look at those who would make Griffith's death some sort of white rights rallying point and you want to laugh, except that it's so tragically stupid.

And yet ... we're still left to deal with that death, aren't we? Left to wonder what the murder might mean.

Some have suggested that the killing has received less national attention than it might if Griffith had been black. There may be something to that. I suppose you could argue that the hate killing of a white man resonates differently in cultural conscience than that of a black one. There is, after all, context to the latter, an awful historical record that freezes the blood.

But that argument only gets you so far. Because in the end, what does resonance matter to those who grieve Griffith's loss? What solace does context offer those who struggle to understand how a man can be murdered for some happenstance of birth?

At the bottom line, Griffith's murder means just what it would if he were black. Means that there remain among us people pathetic enough to hate on account of color.

If the murder itself didn't drive that fact home, the response to it certainly should.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald and may be reached via email at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free at 1-800-457-3881.

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