A new twist on playing the race card

June 13, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Let's say you're a rich white guy who - according to the feds - has cooked the books at his company to get even richer, inflating earnings to the tune of $2.7 billion. What do you do when the law comes after you?

Do you throw yourself on the mercy of the court? Do you flee the country before you're arrested? Do you stick to a traditional defense of staunchly maintaining your innocence?

Well, if you're Richard M. Scrushy - founder and former CEO of Birmingham-based HealthSouth, a rehabilitation services company - you try to pass yourself off as a black man who is the victim of government persecution.

Strange as it may seem, the strategy may be working.

After a four-month trial in Birmingham, Ala., during which Mr. Scrushy surrounded himself with black ministers, and one of his black attorneys compared Mr. Scrushy's travails to the oppression of black Alabamians during segregation, the jury considering the charges seems stalled. After the 10th day, the jury of six whites and six blacks sent Judge Karon O. Bowdre a note telling her they were deadlocked, but she insisted they try again. (The jurors were to resume deliberations today.)

Mr. Scrushy's apparent success in playing the race card is all the more confusing given that actual black people aren't faring so well with that tactic these days. Once, black politicians and other influential black figures routinely cried racism whenever they were charged with wrongdoing. That tactic worked best in the 1970s and '80s, when black influence was still new and whites were still adjusting to the changes wrought by the civil rights movement.

Given the racial tensions of the times, black officials were sometimes targeted unfairly, and black jurors often gave black defendants the benefit of the doubt. But that's changing.

In 1999, a racially mixed jury convicted former Georgia state Sen. Diana Harvey Johnson, who is black, on federal corruption charges. And three years ago, a predominantly black Fulton County, Ga., jury convicted Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (aka H. Rap Brown) on murder charges. Both of them had claimed, to no avail, that whites were out to get them.

But their failures didn't stop Mr. Scrushy from culturally reinventing - or recoloring - himself. A few years ago, Mr. Scrushy was just another self-aggrandizing, super-wealthy white guy, with mansions, expensive toys - including a Rolls-Royce and several boats - and a trophy wife. He attended a predominantly white suburban church.

But in 2003, HealthSouth ousted Mr. Scrushy as the feds closed in. With fraud charges imminent, Mr. Scrushy suddenly started attending a large, predominantly black church and began contributing large sums. He started preaching at other churches, favoring those with mostly black congregations. He became host of a religious TV program.

Now, I've never heard Mr. Scrushy preach. I'm afraid that I'd turn rude if I were to hear one of his sermons.

Mr. Scrushy, though, must have learned the rhythms and ritual of black evangelical worship or he wouldn't have attracted so many black fans. Not every white guy can dance across a pulpit without losing his place in the scriptural reading. (Nor can every black guy, for that matter.)

His creativity notwithstanding, Mr. Scrushy's elaborate role-playing and race-baiting may yet come to naught. He could still be convicted. But if he isn't, his exoneration would have to be read as one more sign of the continued blurring of the lines of race in America: A black defendant may not get away scot-free by claiming to be a victim of white oppression, but a white guy might.

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

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