`Net roots' fight for civil rights

April 06, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

A 14-year-old black girl from tiny Paris, Texas, was sent to a youth prison for up to seven years for shoving a hall monitor at her high school.

The same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for burning down her family's house.

Bigger offense, lighter sentence, lighter skin: the ingredients of injustice.

That's how it sounded to my friend and colleague Howard Witt, the Chicago Tribune's Houston-based Southwest bureau chief. He heard about the girl from Gary Bledsoe, an Austin, Texas, attorney who is president of the Texas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"It's like they are sending a signal to black folks in Paris that you stay in your place in this community, in the shadows, intimidated," Mr. Witt said that Mr. Bledsoe told him.

Mr. Witt pursued the story.

His March 12 Tribune article hit the Internet like a slap heard around the world.

It was picked up by more than 300 blogs and thousands of message boards, many of them geared to black community issues. The story also prompted a nationwide letter-writing campaign to the Texas governor and expressions of outrage from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other activists.

On Saturday, the black teen, Shaquanda Cotton, walked out of juvenile prison, released early after serving a year of her sentence. The Texas Youth Commission ordered her immediate release after learning that prison authorities had extended her sentence after finding "contraband" in her cell - an extra pair of socks.

I hope the civil rights movement will take some important lessons from this story.

After I recently wrote that the NAACP's national leaders should broaden their focus beyond civil rights to include other social problems plaguing black America, a reader e-mailed a copy of Mr. Witt's story to me. The message: Racism is still alive and well. No doubt. But rather than refute the need to change the NAACP's mission, Shaquanda Cotton's story serves to confirm it.

Among other questions it raises: Why was this child allowed to sit in prison for almost a year before media-generated heat from outsiders led to her rescue?

The evidence suggests that Shaquanda was forgotten not only by the white establishment but also by much of the black middle class and black political establishment that the civil rights revolution helped create.

There's no question that civil rights leaders need to keep an eagle eye out for cases where justice is not being handed out equally. It is good that the U.S. Department of Education has been investigating complaints of disciplinary bias against black students in the Paris school district. But the larger issue of a new, invisible underclass of blacks and others whom the civil rights revolution left behind is by no means limited to Paris, or to Texas.

As race has declined in significance as a barrier to opportunity, economic class has become even more pernicious, opening a new gap between those who are moving up economically and those who are stuck on the bottom of the economic lake.

Those of us fortunate enough to have benefited from the civil rights revolution have a special obligation to serve as watchdogs against injustice without getting too cozy with those whom we should be watching.

With that in mind, I am encouraged by another discovery Mr. Witt made in the wake of his story on Shaquanda, a phenomenon he calls a "new `virtual' civil rights movement out there on the Internet" that "can reach more people in a few hours than all the protest marches, sit-ins and boycotts of the 1950s and '60s put together."

Perhaps the next phase of the civil rights revolution will be found on the Web in the "Net roots," in the way that the last one erupted at the grass roots. It wouldn't be the first time that a movement's leaders would have to rush to catch up with the people they are trying to lead.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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