Black crime problem muddled by racism, denial

December 15, 2003|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - The judges of a Florida appeals court could see the boy in the black man-child, the recklessness in the kid who loved TV wrestling, the testosterone-fueled stupidity in an otherwise harmless preteen. They didn't see a hardened killer.

So they reversed the conviction of Lionel Tate, who was just 12 years old when he was accused of murder in the death of his 6-year-old playmate, Tiffany Eunick. Although there was no evidence that Lionel meant to kill Tiffany, a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. The appeals court restored a semblance of common sense to a travesty of justice.

But it hardly solved the larger problem - the impossibly complex conundrum - of black men and crime. It is a contentious and difficult issue, a bramble of stereotypes, prejudice, ignorance, fear and paranoia. It involves the frustrating tendency of the criminal justice system to persecute black men, as well as the depressing fact that black men commit a disproportionate share of the nation's homicides.

Even as black men such as E. Stanley O'Neal, Richard Parsons and Colin L. Powell have risen to the highest ranks of business and diplomacy, America continues to stereotype black men as dangerous predators. It does not matter how well-dressed, well-educated or well-mannered they are; black men have grown accustomed to routine stop-and-frisks by police officers, to being bypassed by cab drivers, to being glared at by white women who find themselves sharing a lonely elevator.

The stereotyping of black men, which harkens back to the earliest days of American slavery, helps explain the harsh treatment of Lionel Tate and the disproportionate number of black men in prison, as well as the increasing numbers of black men released from prison after years spent behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.

But the problem is not simply one of bigotry. The worst-kept secret in black America is that there are many predators among black men. For every Lionel Tate, a young man who thoughtlessly inflicted fatal injuries on a playmate, there is a Michael Lewis, a.k.a. Little B, an out-of-control thug who killed a man at 13.

In 1997, Darrell Woods and his family stopped at a convenience store in a bottomed-out Atlanta neighborhood called the Bluff. Michael Lewis, who was selling drugs nearby, demanded that Mr. Woods turn out his headlights. When Mr. Woods refused, Michael Lewis shot him dead as Mr. Woods' two young sons sat in the back seat.

In 2002, the nation had 14,054 homicides, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Of those in which a suspect was identified, black men were likely perpetrators in more than 40 percent. That's a damning statistic for a group that accounts for only about 6 percent of the population.

Black men are also the group most vulnerable to violent crime. In 2002, they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the nation's homicide victims. In other words, black men pose the greatest threat to each other.

Not that you'd know that to listen to the public debate, which is often a contentious argument fueled by white racism and black defensiveness and denial. Many whites are reluctant to admit that justice in America is not color-blind, while blacks are loath to concede the problem of violence in their midst.

A recent controversy over escalating crime in Atlanta's most popular entertainment district, Buckhead Village, bore witness to the racial divide. White callers to talk-radio shows denounced blacks for "ruining" Buckhead, while black politicians and activists dismissed concerns over violent crime as a ruse, a cover for racist whites who wanted to return to an era of segregated nightlife. Few pointed to a salient fact: Of the nine homicides in Buckhead Village since January 2000, all the victims and all the suspects are black.

If the nation is ever to have a system of criminal justice that is actually just, it has to stop confusing the Lionel Tates with the Little B's.

And if black America is to solve its problem of violent crime, it needs to stop pretending the Little B's don't exist.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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