Looking for my latest fix of Michael Vick news, I was rummaging through the pages of that other Atlanta newspaper when I came upon "Wanted by the Law." Four black guys' faces glumly peered from the page.
"Hmm," I mused, a faint light beginning to flicker over my head. From a stack of yellowing newspapers, I pulled the previous week's "Wanted." It featured three black men and a Hispanic woman. "Aha!" I thought. "Maybe I'm on to something here." It turns out that black men dominate the newspaper's imitation of the post office's mug shot hall of shame. There's a sprinkling of Hispanic men and an occasional black or Latin female. White folks have a hard time, it seems, getting their photo in "Wanted by the Law."
And, yes, that plays into a lot of racial stereotypes. Still, not all stereotypes are completely baseless. Michael Vick has added to the shouting war of competing prejudices – with a vengeance.
If you hold your nose and visit overtly racist websites, you'll find declarations that Vick's crimes were inevitable because of his race – and keep in mind, these attitudes are still nourished in many Georgia homes. "What did you expect from a negro that makes money? IT'S IN THEIR BLOOD. They're all the same," wrote "CrowCity" in one of scores of such posts on the white nationalist Stormfront.org website.
Slide a little more into the mainstream, and the genetic explanation gives way to assertions that blacks embrace a culture where brutality, misogyny and crime are integral components. "Michael Vick is an example of the society eroding thug culture which has become so prominent in the black community," wrote "Matt, Esq." on the popular website of Hugh Hewitt, a law professor and former legal aide to Ronald Reagan. "Dog fighting is part of the thug culture closely associated with gangs and rap music. ... [T]hug culture glorifies violence and death but black rappers and athletes get a pass because somehow, dog fight, disrespecting woman, etc are part of their 'culture.'"
For most of us, the debate avoids the hyperbole, but the questions are thorny.
Was Vick hounded (pardon the pun) because he was a successful black? We've heard similar claims about many prominent African-Americans, ranging from Michael Jackson to Bill Campbell.
The Rev. R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, called Vick's case a "lynching."
Maybe the best (or worst) comment was from O.J. Simpson, who pretty much has given up any pretense of innocence in the killing of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. "If you like Michael Vick, you must acquit," said Simpson, parodying the "if it (the glove) doesn't fit, you must acquit" mantra of his lawyer during O.J.'s successful criminal defense 12 years ago. That trial foreshadowed much of the Vick debate – whites overwhelmingly concluded Simpson was guilty, while many blacks felt there was more racism than evidence in the prosecution.
Fortunately, there are a few wise people around. "Vick is absolutely not a race issue," says state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta. He rescued Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele from "honoring" Vick at the group's recent Atlanta convention.
"There are young, black men who need our help, but Vick isn't one of them," Brooks says. "These kids are imitating the gangstas, hip-hoppers, the guys with pants hanging off their butts who call women bitches and ho's. They look at Michael [Vick] and see the same thing. We have to give these young men better examples."
Fueling much of the Vick bombast is his crime – torturing and killing pit bulls bred to become vicious fighting dogs. It's a secret – but popular – sport that, like cockfighting, appeals to the bloodlust of many Americans of all colors. The animal-rights people – and I'm a dog lover, too – went into full ballistic mode. An NFL Players Association spokesman played to the mob, saying: "We believe the criminal conduct to which Mr. Vick has pled guilty today cannot be condoned under any circumstances."
That's fine – but what about all of the other criminals in sports uniforms?
The NFL recently suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones – but only after 11 police investigations and his latest stunt, allegedly pounding a stripper's head into the ground. The NFL has never suspended a player for domestic violence. We hold up as idols football players – yet 21 percent of the starters in the NFL have rap sheets, according to Don Yaeger and Jeff Benedict in their book Pros and Cons. The most common offense was domestic violence. Los Angeles political commentator Sandra Korbin phrased it well: "Beat a woman? Play on. Beat a dog? You're gone."
Other sports are no better – Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers beat his wife on a public street – but Major League Baseball took no action. And the NBA? Forget it.
Brenda Jones is the spokeswoman for Atlanta Congressman and Civil Rights-era giant John Lewis. And, like her boss, she is a voice of sensible moderation. She had no affection for Vick, but she spoke to the uneasiness in the black community. "The level of vilification doesn't fit the crime," she says. "Some people do terrible things, people like George Bush and Alberto Gonzales, and you don't see the reaction that we're seeing to Michael Vick.
"I don't think the prosecution is racist," Jones adds, "but it has racial overtones in that it verifies the stereotypes many people have of African-Americans. 'There they go again,' some people say. 'They don't have the capacity to be part of society. They're characterized by depravity.' We just don't make those same statements about other groups when members of the groups commit horrible acts. That's wrong."
That other Atlanta newspaper doesn't pick perps for its "Wanted by the Law" based on race. But it says a lot about society that we'll pillory these mostly black and Hispanic accused criminals in the "Wanted" column, yet treat with deference the mostly white boardroom criminals who prey on society. As Jones says, it's the "overtones" of racism that linger with us.
(Editor's Note: The print version of this column and the original on-line
version contained a reference to a blog written by the Rev. Al Sharpton. It
was a parody that was originally published on the newsgroper.com website
which has fake celebrity blogs. The column also included a quote mistakenly
attributed to Bill Cosby, which has been removed.)
More of John Sugg's commentaries on race:
Inside the secret world of white supremacy
A visit to Laurens, S.C.
A kinder, gentler racism
Stormfront.org strives to make extremism mainstream
Racial Healing In Mississippi
A tale of two men who reveal the best and worst of the South
Elliot Jaspin’s book is the last thing the AJC’s editors want you to read
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