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.