Please indulge me as I answer an e-mail I received last week in response to a recent column decrying unequal justice as represented by the controversy in Jena, La. A fellow named John wrote:
"Your columns usually merit reading. But this time, You sound like the typical Black guy crying 'victim.' Leonard, you list instances of Black injustice and I'm sure there are many. However have you forgot about O.J.? He got away with murder Leonard. He killed his white wife! ... Or how about Sharpton and the Brawley case? ... Or the Duke case. ... I could go on and on. You want more respect for you and your race? Stop sounding like a nigger and start sounding and acting like a Black man. You'll get respect and justice. Try being a Black man all the time, not just when it fits your agenda."
John, thank you for writing. Here are a few words in response.
That column you disliked argued that Jena, where six black kids were initially charged with attempted murder after they gave a white kid a black eye and knocked him out, is part of a long pattern of the justice system being used to keep blacks in line. Indeed, black students at Jena High report that even before the fight, the DA warned them in an assembly that he could make their lives go away "with the stroke of a pen."
The students say he was looking directly at them when he said it. The DA has denied this, but I find the denial less than credible given the unfathomable charges he sought to file against the black kids while a white kid who attacked a black one got off with a comparative slap on the wrist.
Anyway, you were one of a number of readers who wrote to remind me of Simpson. If the point of your reference to him, Tawana Brawley and the Duke lacrosse case was that the justice system has repeatedly and historically mistreated whites, too, on the basis of race, I'm sorry, but that's absurd. Not that those cases were not travesties. They were. And if those travesties leave you outraged, well, I share that feeling.
But, here's what I want you to do. Take that sense of outrage, that sense of betrayal, of having been cheated by a system you once thought you could trust, and multiply it. Multiply it by Valdosta and Waco and Birmingham and Fort Lauderdale and Money and Marion and Omaha and thousands of other cities and towns where black men and women were lynched, burned, bombed, shot, with impunity.
Multiply it by the thousands of cops and courts that refused to arrest or punish even when they held photographs of the perpetrators taken in the act. Multiply it by a million lesser outrages. Multiply it by L.A. cops planting evidence. Multiply it by the black drug defendant who is 48 times more likely to go to jail than the white one who commits the same crime and has the same record. Multiply it by Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. Multiply it by 388 years.
And then come talk to me about O.J. Simpson.
You may call all that "playing victim." I call it providing context. Jena did not happen in a vacuum. It did not spring from nowhere. So this false equivalence, this pretense that the justice system as experienced by white people and black ones is in any way similar, is ignorant and obnoxious.
Much like your turning to a racial slur to describe how you think I "sound." I found that word interesting coming near the end of an e-mail whose tone, while critical, had, until that point, been reasonable. I suppose you just couldn't help yourself.
It says something about the intransigence, self-justification and retarded self-awareness of American racism that a man who uses the language you do would, in the same breath, offer advice to black folks seeking "respect and justice." Appreciate the effort, John, but I'm afraid you can't solve the problem
See, you ARE the problem.