I was mortified, if not really surprised, to see some of the angry responses to R.L. Nave's excellent cover story last week about the killing of Quardious Thomas. They ranged from the absurd—that you can't call the 20-year-old a victim or say that he was "killed" because he was (allegedly) breaking into a car—to the downright vicious and un-American defenses of the right to execute a young man before he's proved guilty of breaking into a car.
No investigation was needed, they allege repeatedly. Property crime should bring punishment by death. And it got worse. He was a "thug." He was one of "them," clearly raised by bad parents in "their culture."
Most of us know what they're saying.
Reading the comments, I couldn't help but think of the very different responses I read after the white Ole Miss student dragged a police officer to his death or a drunk white kid hit a car after leaving a reservoir, killing a family of children. Those young men were good kids who made a mistake, the reasoning went. But when it's black youth who screw up, they are thugs raised by terrible parents and deserve what happens to them.
Granted, this kind of "kill the thugs" rhetoric may be jarring, but can be expected from a certain unreformed element. Many Mississippians are familiar with people who were raised on the slavery-spawned myth that people of color are more violent, which served as a primary justification to keep segregation and even lynching in place; nearly always, an alleged crime was the rationale.
And our state had the most lynchings.
White people were raised here to believe that blacks—especially young men—were violent in order to justify brutality against them, keep the vote from them and ensure white supremacy (and control of wealth and opportunity) stayed in place. Sadly, the powerful have long pitted poor, uneducated whites against people of color: a divide-and-conquer strategy that keeps power and money where they want it. In other words, many of our people were taught to hate against their own interests—and too many still do.
Fortunately, fewer whites are now raised to believe that people of color are born or raised to be more violent—but too many still hold onto that learned myth. It's not like those beliefs went "poof" the minute the U.S. Supreme Court finally ended Mississippi segregation laws in 1970. Remember that a 60-year-old of today was 17 then and perhaps set in his beliefs.
It hasn't helped that we are suffering a new fear wave, fueled both by the gun lobby and conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, which controls a number of legislators right here in Mississippi, is responsible for a wave of gun laws, such as Stand Your Ground and various versions of the Castle Doctrine, that allow and encourage individual citizens to put themselves in danger to fire on suspected criminals, not to mention to truncate the due-process laws that have long governed American criminal jurisprudence.
It's working. When I was growing up, I would often hear racist sentiments. But I did not often hear justification of stomping outside to blow away someone trying to break into your car. Or that someone was justified in stalking and then killing an unarmed teen who might do something bad.
We now have a black president, and probably because national figures like Sarah Palin made this kind of paranoia OK to again utter out loud, young blacks are becoming the hunted again. Even if they're unarmed, even if they're troubled, even if they're not doing a damn thing but buying Skittles. And don't even think about them having a right to self-defense against those stalking them.
I've said it before: It's not that some fools still hold these beliefs about non-whites that terrifies me so much; it's how many people will openly justify violence against "thugs" and come out and say things like "blacks commit more crimes in Jackson" (duh, in a city that is overwhelmingly majority-black).
You sure don't see the same kind of passion directed at the real violence that plagues every neighborhood in the metro, regardless of who lives there, their race, and how much education or money they have: sexual assault, incest, neglect and abuse of children, not to mention women.
But here's the thing: White people aren't the only ones turning their backs on young people of color. In the Quardious Thomas killing, every major player we know of who has not demanded or brought a real investigation is black. On the JFP Facebook page, a young black woman said he got what he deserved because he was (allegedly) breaking into the homeowner's car. Thus, the reasoning goes, it made sense that the homeowner grabbed his gun, went outside and fired six bullets into the unarmed Thomas. Oh, and then for the police and district attorney to drop the ball on the investigation.
Put another way, the Quardious Thomas case is probably not attracting national attention because the homeowner and the "investigators" are black. Thus, it matters less to national media, who would likely have jumped all over it had the shooter been white. We've seen that before, too.
The most horrifying irony of all of this, though, is that these attitudes actually increase crime. Don't take my word for it: The research is voluminous and easy to find (including in this GOOD Ideas issue).
Our nation's and state's history of demonizing, dehumanizing and executing young black men—often with an inadequate or no trial and for crimes they did not commit—has created the violent culture we have today. And the response that cruel and unusual punishment should be meted out without a judge or jury for property crime by certain people will only feed into violence going forward.
Not to mention, the kinds of severe legal punishment that befalls non-whites more often than whites for lesser (and often drug-related) crimes contributes to recidivism.
That is great news for the gun lobby, which gets to sell more guns as a result, and groups like ALEC that thrive only if fewer people can vote against their bought-and-sold legislators (they push voter ID, too).
But if you're a citizen who wants your families and your friends and your neighbors to be safer, please don't jump down the nonsensical and brutal rabbit hole where young people are riddled with bullets for breaking a window to gladiator-like applause.
Instead, I urge you to join a growing army of people, including right here in the metro, who believe that all God's children deserve a chance to live, grow and prosper regardless of the family circumstances they were born into. This GOOD Ideas issue is dedicated to every young person in Jackson.