If Kwame Kilpatrick were white, don't you think he'd have been thrown out of office a long time ago? Heck, he'd be out of jail by now and shopping his memoirs.
Instead, it was just last week, after a year of scandal and revelation that has paralyzed his city and made it the punch line to an international joke, that Detroit's mayor surrendered his office and copped a plea: 120 days in jail, five years probation, and a $1 million fine. Because, you see, Kilpatrick is not white, he is black in a city that is itself over 80 percent black. And that complicated things.
For instance, it led to underserved support from the local black paper.
And to a massive rally for him at a black church.
And to black people blaming the media for "bringing down" a gifted black man.
And to a political consultant calling the case, "Jim Crow justice."
And to Kilpatrick repeatedly portraying himself as a victim of racial politics and a "lynch mob mentality."
All the claims of racial solidarity and victimization gave Kilpatrick what Eliot Spitzer could never have imagined: a base from which to dig in his heels and declare he would not be moved.
If you didn't know better, you might have thought this was Birmingham in 1963 or Montgomery in '55, with strains of "We Shall Overcome" ringing in the air. You'd never know it was Detroit in 2008 where the issue wasn't desegregation or human dignity but, rather, a mayor who had an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, fired police who came too close to discovering it, lied about it under oath, agreed to an $8.4 million payoff to keep police from releasing explicit text messages proving the affair and, for good measure, shoved a sheriff's deputy trying to serve a subpoena to someone else in an unrelated matter.
Racial victimization? Jim Crow justice? Give me a break.
In an April column, I excoriated the mayor for playing upon African America's reflexive tendency to rally in defense of any one of us who gets in trouble. But that's only part of the problem here. It's not just that someone played black folks, but that black folks keep letting themselves be played.
Truth is, we get played like checkers any time any high-profile one of us is caught in scandal or sin. From Michael Jackson to O.J. Simpson to Tawana Brawley to Mike Tyson to Marion Barry to Kilpatrick, lying his natural backside off in court, we keep proving pathetically susceptible to manipulation by any brother or sister who says white folks have done him or her wrong - especially if they invoke God a few times for good measure.
There's an axiom that goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But what about fool me 87 times? What about, fool me like the nerdy kid with the "kick me" sign taped to his back?
What happens when you get fooled like that? I'll tell you what should happen. You should say, Enough. You should evolve the social and political maturity, the common sense and the plain self-respect to stop letting yourself be used like a dishrag.
African-Americans - and, for that matter, all people of conscience - have a moral responsibility to stand up for those who truly are victims of racial injustice. In defending those people, we should be unstinting and unwavering.
We should not, however, be unthinking. We should stop falling into the easy trap of believing every black man in trouble is a victim of racial malfeasance. Sometimes, a black man in trouble is a victim of his own malfeasance. If more black folks in Motown had understood this, the city might not have spent the last year embarrassing itself.
For centuries, African-Americans have struggled to teach white people that black does not mean guilt. Frankly, it's high time we ourselves learned a corresponding truth.
It doesn't mean innocence, either.
- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.