Many Americans, particularly those outside the Deep South, were somewhat confounded by the controversial events recently staged in all-white Forsyth County, Ga. They were confounded--as opposed to, say, appalled--because they found it difficult to accept the blatantly racist behavior exhibited there as an accurate sign of the times. In their steadfast allegiance to the notion that our nation, as a whole, has outgrown the discriminatory tendencies of its past, they relegated the Georgia story to a state of insignificance, viewing it as a fluke, a can't-happen-here footnote to this, the new and improved post-civil-rights-movement edition of America.
They were wrong, of course.
And therein lies one monster of a problem for black Americans today. Because it can happen here, it in fact is happening, and yet precious few white Americans seem inclined, or able, to recognize it.
A case in point:
Not more than a year ago I was the only black member of a jury that had been assembled to hear what amounted to a routine case of drunk driving in Beverly Hills Municipal Court. The defendant facing the charges was black; the arresting officers were white and Latino. When the time came to deliberate the case, I voiced my doubts that the officers' testimony could be considered entirely trustworthy; for various reasons (which I won't get into here), it was my feeling that both men had lied outright about one thing or another while on the stand. Our leader, a likable woman in her late 40s, as articulate and well-intentioned as any juror could be, wondered in all sincerity what motivation the arresting officers could have possibly had for railroading the poor kid whose fate we were deciding.
Here is where I made a mistake. I said that the Beverly Hills police had a well-documented history of making minorities feel less than welcome on their fair city's streets; I suggested that perhaps the young man's troubles were related in some way to the color of his skin.
Judging by my fellow jurors' reactions, that was akin to proposing that the world was flat and the next freighter bound for Tokyo was doomed to fall clean off the edge into the Milky Way.
I had presented a concept that they could not buy, not one of them. Not the frumpy school teacher in the paisley dress, not the balding CPA with the endearing smile, not the helmet-toting motorcycle rider, the former police dispatcher or the dizzy housewife. Overt racism, in the eyes of this diverse assembly, was a dead issue, the ghost of a dragon slain ages ago.
All that I had asked was that my fellow jurors consider the possibility--never mind the probability--that racism had played some part, however small, in a contemporary police officer's execution of his duties. For that I was made to feel like a militant. Paranoid. As clear-sighted as Chicken Little.
It was a sobering experience, to say the least.
Jury duty is supposed to provide one with an education in the mechanics of our judicial system, but here I had learned a lesson, no less valuable, of a different stripe altogether. I had previously thought that apathy among black Americans was the primary factor leading to the resurgence of open racism in America, but now I could see that white American apathy was the greater evil, the more powerful stimulant to its growth. Nothing else explains how the status of minorities has managed to nosedive to its present depths in just 10 years. The wheels of progress, once rolling however ponderously toward some semblance of racial equality, have not merely ground to a halt in the last decade but are in fact now churning in reverse, and, like the riders of some runaway train whose cries for help cannot be heard above the din of the rails, black Americans seem powerless to turn white America's attention to the process.
Without knowing it, I suppose, my fellow jurors have become as dire a threat to my civil liberties as anyone who ever donned a pointed hood in the name of white supremacy. Because they have falsely assumed that the battle is won, that any complaints made in this day and age regarding racial discrimination are just the whimperings of malcontents, alarmists afraid of their own shadows.
I think I can guess what these same people, and others like them, had to say about Dwight Gooden's little run-in with the law in Florida some months ago, just as I can easily imagine how receptive they will be toward Sagon Penn's latest plea of self-defense as he is tried yet again for the murder of a San Diego police officer.
Oddly enough, I do not bear these skeptics any malice, for their blissful ignorance of racism's dogged perseverance will not come without a price that their collective conscience will have to pay, sooner or later. But I do make room for them in my prayers, as I do for my children and theirs.
Because the sky is falling, actually. And, like Chicken Little, I'm having a hell of a time getting some people to notice.