Why black America shouldn't be focused on hanging nooses

December 05, 2007|By Carol M. Swain

A spate of hanging nooses is being reported all over the country. This is creating an environment that has encouraged at least one black man to hang his own noose and place the blame on white co-workers. Donald Maynard, a Baltimore firefighter and paramedic, confessed to hanging a noose found last month in the fire station where he worked.

Even though his report sparked a federal investigation and public outcry, Mr. Maynard will not face criminal charges for filing a false report. We will never be able to quantify the damage that Mr. Maynard's action did to race relations at his job and in the wider community.

It is against this backdrop that I reassess the implications of last month's rally outside the U.S. Justice Department, in which the Rev. Al Sharpton and thousands of African-Americans protested the failure of the federal government to protect them from hanging nooses and unequal treatment by judges and law enforcement officials who frequently use excessive force to subdue black criminal suspects.

Some of the issues raised by Mr. Sharpton are valid, but others are misleading. For example, the characterization of hanging nooses as a hate crime is a stretch. Hate crime laws are designed to protect individuals from violence based on race, religion or ethnicity. Under current federal law, the victim has to be attending a public school or engaged in a "federally protected activity" to be covered. A hanging noose is a chilling symbol, but it only becomes a hate crime when it is being used to lynch a human being. Most likely, the U.S. Supreme Court would consider a noose as protected speech under the First Amendment.

The rally in Washington stirred emotions and renewed cries of racism. Surely racism still exists. However, what concerns me most is a narrow focus on white-against-black racism and not the factors that reinforce white prejudice. Key among these factors are self-destructive behaviors such as high black-on-black crime, drug abuse and unwed motherhood.

When will Mr. Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson take their marches into black inner-city neighborhoods and demand an end to the nonsense that is destroying black America?

In October, a 99-year-old black Florida woman was raped and murdered in her home by a black teenager. In Tennessee, a 74-year-old black female shopkeeper was shot and killed by a black teen from the neighborhood. What has caused black teens to go from killing each other to killing our mothers and grandmothers?

Black America faces a crisis of enormous proportions that goes beyond the need to confront historical symbols of racism. We need more leaders like Bill Cosby and Juan Williams who will focus on the self-hatred and devaluing of life that seem prevalent among our youths.

Centuries ago, the Prophet Hosea cried: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you, that you shall be no priest to me. Seeing you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children."

We can apply these words to the black community and many of its trusted religious and secular leaders.

By failing to educate the people and by ignoring self-inflicted wounds, these leaders are hurting their own people and any prospect of healthy race relations.

Carol M. Swain is a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of "Black Faces, Black Interests" and the editor of "Debating Immigration." Her e-mail is carol.swain@vanderbilt.edu.

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