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Archive for Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Society bears responsibility

May 16, 2006

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So now we know how Martin Lee Anderson died.

We can forget the original autopsy report filed by Charles Siebert, a doctor so inept he wasn't technically a doctor (he had allowed his license to lapse) when he issued the report. A doctor so inept he once described a person he autopsied as having "unremarkable" testes. The person was a woman, so if she had testes at all, it would seem quite remarkable, indeed.

Siebert claimed that after being hit, manhandled and choked by guards Jan. 5 at a so-called boot camp in Panama City, Fla., the 14-year-old Anderson died of sickle cell trait, a genetic blood disorder carried by 1 in 12 Americans of African heritage. That finding has been roundly hooted by real doctors, who say it is unlikely in the extreme that the condition could lead to death.

Friday before last, a new autopsy told a different story. Dr. Vernard Adams, Tampa's chief medical examiner, found that the child died because guards covered his mouth and forced him to inhale ammonia.

Just so you know, Martin Lee Anderson was an A and B student, good at math. He wound up in the boot camp after he took his grandmother's car for a joy ride.

In other words, hardly the second coming of Al Capone.

As it happens, news of how he died came almost simultaneously with news of another appalling mistreatment of children in detention. According to a report from an advocacy group, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, more than 100 teenagers were left locked in a flooded prison in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They had to scramble to the top bunks to avoid drowning. They went up to five days with nothing to eat or drink. Some drank flood water. A large number had not been convicted of any crime.

And the vast majority were, like Anderson, black. Indeed, while New Orleans was about 67 percent black, the report says the prison was well more than 95 percent black. No surprise. Human Rights Watch reports that black people are more than eight times as likely to wind up behind bars as whites.

It is telling how mutely we absorb that fact. Some see in it only proof of the ravaging effects of poverty and miseducation, others support for the idiot claim that criminality is a native defect of African peoples. You seldom hear anyone suggest that it is this way because we the people want it this way, that in our silence we give tacit approval to this means of controlling a population whose mere existence we have historically found threatening and inconvenient.

In the James Crow years, the institutions of government and society could hardly have been more brazen in pursuit of that goal. White teachers told black students they should aspire to no goal higher than to work as janitors and cooks. White cops turned black suspects over to lynch mobs.

It could never happen that way in this enlightened era, of course. And yet it happens in other ways. A 2002 report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University says black kids are labeled as emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded and shipped off to special education classes at rates of up to four times those of white kids. A 2000 study co-sponsored by the Justice Department tells us that, of people who've never done time in juvenile facilities, a black drug defendant is 48 times more likely to be jailed than a white one with the same record.

The means have changed, but the end - repression, control - remains the same and we steer black kids like cars until they reach it.

Granted, there may have been some white kids in that fetid, flooded prison. There were certainly some in that brutal boot camp. Yet it's no accident that African-American children are always so well represented in those lousy places, not happenstance that they are so readily found among society's discards.

So our concern for them now feels ... well, let's call it belated. And self-deluding.

Those children were right where we wanted them to be.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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