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May 22, 2006 - Cincinnati Enquirer (OH)

OpEd: Racism Still The Biggest Reason For Blacks Behind Bars

By Leonard Pitts

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Thank you, but I don't need a lecture on personal responsibility.

Many of you apparently felt otherwise after reading my recent column on the use of the justice system as a cudgel against black children.

The column dealt with the mistreatment of over 100 juveniles, most of them African American, who were left in a flooded New Orleans detention center for up to five days without food and water after Hurricane Katrina.

It was also about the death of Martin Lee Anderson, an unresisting 14-year-old black kid who was hit, choked and restrained by up to nine guards in a Panama City "boot camp."

The abuse and the disproportionate number of black kids who wind up in those places was, I said, a legacy of the nation's historic tendency to use its justice system to control a population it finds frightening and inconvenient.

In response, a woman named Charlene demanded to know, "When is the black community going to take responsibility for themselves?" An individual named Don wrote, "Why are they in jail? Because most young blacks are thugs, dope dealers and car thieves in my experience."

A fellow named Jay wrote that, "AA women need to stop having children out of wedlock. . . . Raise a child in a home with a mother and father and you will see the stats for crime go way down." Some people, using statistics freshly pulled from their backsides, sought to "prove" black kids commit pretty much all of the crime in the country.

And one individual said Martin Lee Anderson's guards "did us all a favor."

As I said, some people find the existence of black children inconvenient.

You want to talk responsibility? I'm fine with that. Much of what ails African America lies squarely within its power to fix; I've been saying that in this space for many years.

But the fact is, the need for greater personal responsibility, important as it is, does not of itself account for all the dysfunctions that beset the African-American community.

Of course, many white folks don't want to go there. And it never fails to amaze me how they absolve themselves and this nation of the charge of racism, how readily they look past, look through, flat-out ignore, anything that says otherwise.

Indeed, it's telling that of all the dissenters preaching personal responsibility, not a single one refuted or even addressed the statistics in the column suggesting that racial animus plays a role in the disproportionate number of black people behind bars.

I repeat: And Justice For Some, a 2000 study co-sponsored by the Justice Department, found that a black drug defendant is 48 times more likely to be jailed than a white one with the same record.

There's more. According to The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, blacks account for 13 percent of all regular drug users but 35 percent of those arrested, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession.

A 2004 Miami Herald report found that a judicial procedure that allows a defendant's record to be wiped clean of a felony offense is given freely to white drug dealers, rapists and child molesters. But to blacks? Not so much. And this remains true, even when adjusted for socioeconomic factors.

Beg pardon, but "personal responsibility" does not explain those disparities. And it's vexing that so many Caucasians find it so hard to get their lips around the word that does.

But then, that would require of them more than the easy ability to wag a finger at the failures of others. It would require a willingness to own their own failures and to face truths that do not flatter self-image -- something some white Americans clearly lack the intestinal fortitude to do.

So you'll forgive me if I find it hard to take seriously all this pious advice to African Americans.

Responsibility is a two-way street.

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