There’s a curious conversation happening in this country about race right now – and a more important one we need to have.
Last week, three teenagers pleaded guilty to attacking a younger student aboard a school bus in Gulfport and were sentenced to probation. The July assault gained national attention because a video camera captured the violence, which went on for more than 30 seconds, as the 15-year-olds mercilessly punched, kicked and stomped on the 13-year-old, who tried to protect himself by hiding underneath his seat.
The attack also sparked a lot of talk because the 15-year-old assailants were all black, the 13-year-old victim white. While the video makes that obvious, we and other media outlets covering the case never included that detail in our stories because we, as a rule, do not extraneously mention race in our reporting, unless it’s relevant. In this case, there was never any suggestion this was a racially motivated attack. The victim was beaten up because he told administrators at Lealman Intermediate School, where all the boys were in summer school, that two of his assailants had tried selling him marijuana in a school bathroom earlier that day. The two were questioned, searched, and then boarded the same bus home as the victim.
Conservative media outlets jumped on the incident and compared it with the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford last February. They – and many of their readers and viewers – wondered why the same national media and black leaders who descried the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer were not asking similar questions about the Gulfport school bus beating. Why, they asked, is the shooting of a black teenager by a Hispanic man worth wall-to-wall coverage, but the beating of a white student by three older black teens garners relatively little coverage, by comparison?
The punishment, which many people saw as light for such a vicious attack, drew similar complaints. I received more than one message saying that, had it been white teenagers ganging up on a younger black student, the attackers would be doing time. Not likely, I think. State sentencing guidelines offer judges little latitude, and given the defendants’ lack of criminal backgrounds, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting more than probation, regardless of the color of their skin.
Similar questions have been raised about the sparse coverage of a jogger’s slaying in Oklahoma last month. Conservative media outlets again made comparisons to the Zimmerman case, because two of the accused assailants are black teens and the jogger was a white college student from Australia. But authorities have dismissed race as a factor in what appears to have been a random attack.
When people with different skin colors are involved in such crimes, many people seem to think race is a factor, regardless of the circumstances. Why? Black America can’t help but see such events in a racial context, given the historical racial inequities in our country’s justice system – inequities we still are working to eradicate. And I think many whites are tired of what they see as double standards played out in the media. If we want to call attention to egregious acts of interracial savagery, let’s do it consistently.
That’s the point Sevell Brown, a longtime civil rights leader from St. Petersburg, made to me last week, after the sentences were handed out in the Gulfport school bus beating case. He called the sentences “a slap on the wrist” and said the attackers should be serving time for what they did.
“Mistreatment is mistreatment,” said Brown, the national director of the National Christian League of Councils.
“The message ought to be sent to the general public that we don’t care what color they are. They ought to be sentenced commensurate with the thuggery and the viciousness they committed.”
Part of what prompted Brown’s call was a desire, as a black leader, to speak out against what he sees as an injustice. Selectively challenging inequities runs the risk of being seen as self-serving and will cost you the moral high ground, at least in some people’s eyes.
“[This sentence] sends the wrong signal, and it’s carrying the whole thing of color with it,” Brown said.
“There needs to be consistency across the board. Mistreatment is mistreatment.”
It’s telling that this “conversation” about race was taking place the same week that we, as a nation, marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech. Yes, we’ve come a long way since 1963, but all the talk this week reminds me that we still have a long way to go — before we can, as Brown suggests, judge situations based more on their circumstances than on race and before we’re smart enough to judge situations based on the facts and not be snookered by race-baiting.
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