Jury calls a hate crime by its proper name.

 Kay "Silk" Littlejohn was attacked in the yard of her home in December 2007.   KDAF PHOTOS/DAN X. McGRAW     The jury has returned a guilty verdict on a misdemeanor assault charge in the trial of Grace Head.  More importantly, jurors clearly believed the crime was racially motivated whether or not Ms. Head was suffering from bi-polar disorder. 

This appears to be a reasonable verdict in a difficult case.  There was little ambiguity on the guilt-innocence issue, but Grace Head’s bizarre behavior revealed both racial animus and serious mental health issues.  To what extent should we hold disturbed people accountable for their actions?

The jury believed that the defendant made a conscious decision rooted in racial hatred but that her mental condition was a mitigating factor.  This sounds about right to me.  I don’t think Silk Littlejohn and Broderick Gamble wanted to see their attacker live out her remaining days in a Texas prison, but they needed a sign that the community takes their suffering seriously.

No jury verdict could fix this situation or make everything right.  The criminal justice system is built for punishment not restoration.  The comments section at the end of the Star Telegram article reflects a deeply divided community.  One woman appears to argue that Littlejohn and Gamble deserved nothing from the criminal justice system because their landscaping doesn’t meet community standards.  Other readers seem to believe that it is never appropriate to speak of racism, even in an egregious case like this.  Any civil rights claim, in this view, is bogus on its face and those who suggest that racism is alive and well in 2009 are just playing the race card. 

And then there are those who revel in the prospect of seeing Grace Head behind bars.  There is no compassion or empathy in these comments, just a malicious glee in punishment for its own sake.  Ms. Head may be a public safety risk, but I doubt it.  Society has yanked her chain and I suspect she will do a much better job of restraining her impulses in the future.  Society has reinforced the parameters of acceptable behavior in a civil society.  That’s important.  But what earthly good would it do anyone to stick this unfortunate woman in prison?  If our prisons were equipped to deal with offenders with mental health issues a therapeutic argument could be made; but this is Texas.

The important issue here is that a crime clearly motivated by racial hatred has been defined as such.  I’m not crazy about hate crime legislation when nothing but speech is involved.  People should have the right to say whatever they wish, no matter how hateful and incendiary.  But when Dobermans and two-by-fours enter the picture the legal equation changes.  It isn’t that Ms. Head should do more time because her terrible acts were racially motivated; but it is important for society to unambiguously deplore racist acts especially when violence is involved.

Are there folks out there who “play the race card” when race isn’t a major factor.  Sure there are.  And there is nothing wrong with criticizing such behavior.  As many Star-Telegram readers suggest, there is a measure of racism in all of us.  During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s the word “racist” was reserved for those who saw African Americans as inferior and unworthy of the full range of civil rights protections guaranteed by the US Constitution.  Racists didn’t necessarily hate black people; some felt kindly toward “the Negro . . . in his place.” 

True racism combines hatred with social power and privilege.  Racists work to exclude all but their own kind from the full benefits and responsibilities of citizenship.  This is a serious business.

The word “racist” shouldn’t be applied to every person who wrestles with the full implications of social pluralism.  When everybody is a racist nobody is a racist and the word is drained of meaning.  Grace Head was a racist in the classic sense because she wanted black people out of the neighborhood and was willing to use violence to make it happen.  A free society can’t tolerate this kind of behavior.  Lines must be drawn.  Given the imperfect options available to them, the jury in this case got it about right.

4 thoughts on “Jury calls a hate crime by its proper name.

  1. The problem with racism is that sensible discussion about it is impossible except perhaps among a very small minority of members of species homo sapiens who are not themselves too racist to be able to perceive the presence of racism in others.

    Most of the things that most humans believe about racism are fallacies.

    Fallacy 1: Racism is rare it only occasionally becomes a serious problem in times and places like Nazi occupied Europe or pre Civil Rights Alabama.

    Truth 1: Racism is ubiquitous, in one necessary sense of the word saying of a particular member of species homo sapiens that he/she is a racist is as silly as saying of a particular uninjured member of species felis domesticus that that cat has four legs. A human who denies his own racism is either lying or lacking in self awareness.

    Fallacy 2: Only white people are racist.

    Truth 2: It is a fact that European descended humans have conquered and colonized much of the world and in those areas the power structures are in the possession of white people who have both the will and the power to discriminate against the interests of brown skinned descendants of the colonized peoples. However the colonized peoples harbor racist sentiments against their conquerors, of course they do, but mostly they lack the power to turn their sentiments into action, but on occasion they will have the power to harm whites by discriminating against them. For example, one would not want to be one of the poor whites in South Africa who have lost the privileged access they once had to low level public service jobs and lack the accumulated wealth by which rich white South Africans protect themselves. Look around the world and you will see Hutus and Tutsis murdering each other in Rawands, Han Chinese and Uighurs and Tibetans in racist conflict……… All colours of humanity exhibit racism.

    Fallacy 3: All types of racism are equally damaging.

    Truth 3: One needs a considerable subsidiary vocabulary to discuss racism otherwise the words racist and racism become overloaded with meanings and it becomes unclear which meaning is intended in any particular use. For example one needs to distinguish between the kind of racist who attaches a nigger to the bumper bar of a light truck and decapitates him by towing him for ten miles and the other kind who while he would not himself do such a thing fails to make his disapproval of such an act clear to the firs man until after he has done the act. The first kind is an extreme racist, the second a mere moderate hater. Moderate bigots may not do harm themselves by acting outside the law but extreme racists perceive that the former approve of their actions. When the actions of moderate racists are channeled via the institutions of law and order the havoc that they wreak on minorities become overwhelming.

    Fallacy 4: Only extreme racists are a problem.

    Truth 4: Moderate racists give tacit permission to extreme racists to carry out racist hate crimes but are shocked when such crimes are exposed. Moderate racists themselves discriminate in a damaging way when they act as cogs in the wheels of social machinery such as the justice system. 90% of what Alan Bean is talking about in this blog is an analysis of how the prejudices of people who would be offended at being called racist distort the outcomes of the justice system so that people who are innocent in the narrow and technical sense that the did not perform the actions of a crime with which they are charged end up convicted and doing long sentences.

  2. Unfortunately the word “nigger” is necessary to describe the attitudes that the majority of white people have towards Negroes. The word carries with it connotations of all the malign stereotypes that whites have about Negroes that inevitably bias their behaviour towards the latter into discrimination. When Amadou Diallo died in a hail of bullets from four NYPD policeman it was not because he was a Negro but because the police saw him as a “nigger” who was obviously reaching into his pocket for a weapon, not for his wallet.

    The malign stereotypes do not disappear if no one uses the word, they still exist and eventually attach themselves to some alternative word that becomes the new term of abuse. There are plenty of politically correct racists who are careful to maintain a veneer of courtesy and never use what they refer to as “the n word” but manage to discriminate against Negroes all the same.

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