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A spate of hanging nooses is being reported all over the country. This is creating an environment that has encouraged at least one black man to hang his own noose and place the blame on white co-workers. Donald Maynard, a Baltimore, MD firefighter and paramedic, confessed to hanging a noose found last month in the fire station where he worked. Even though his report sparked a federal investigation and public outcry, Maynard will not face criminal charges for filing a false report. We will never be able to quantify the amount of damage that Maynard’s action did to race relations at his job and in the wider community.
It is against this backdrop that I re-assess the implications of last month’s rally outside the U.S. Justice Department, in which the Reverend Al Sharpton and thousands of African Americans protested the failure of the Federal Government to protect them from hanging nooses and unequal treatment by judges and law enforcement officials who frequently use excessive actions to subdue black criminal suspects.
Some of the issues raised by Sharpton are quite valid, but others are misleading. For example, the characterization of hanging nooses as hate crime is a stretch. Hate crime laws are designed to protect individuals from violence caused by the person’s race, religion or ethnicity. Under current federal law, the victim has to be attending a public school or engaged in a "federally protected activity" to be covered. By itself, a hanging noose is a chilling symbol and only becomes a hate crime when it is being used to lynch a human being. Most likely the U.S. Supreme Court would consider a noose as protected speech falling under First Amendment protections.
The rally in Washington stirred emotions and renewed cries of racism and surely racism does exist. However what concerns me most is the almost exclusive focus on white against black racism and not the factors that reinforce white prejudice and discrimination against blacks. Key among these factors is self-destructive behaviors such as high black-on-black crime, drug abuse, and unwed motherhood. When will Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson take their marches into black inner-city and neighborhoods and demand an end to the nonsense that is destroying black America? The cold-blooded murder of NFL player Sean Taylor shows that violence can land on anyone’s doorstep, even the rich and famous.
Some crimes boggle the mind. In October, a 99-year-old black Florida woman was raped and murdered in her home by a black teenager. Similarly, in Tennessee, a 74-year old black female shopkeeper was shot and killed by a black teen from the neighborhood. What has caused black teens to go from killing each other to killing our mothers and grandmothers?
Black America faces a crisis of enormous proportions that go beyond the need to confront historical symbols of racism. We need more leaders like Bill Cosby and Juan Williams who will focus on the self-hatred and devaluing of life that seems prevalent among our youth. Our leaders need to turn the spotlight on the people and begin to rise up and condemn bad behavior.
Centuries ago, the Prophet Hosea cried: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you, that you shall be no priest to me: seeing you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children (4:6).”
We can apply these words to the black community and many of its trusted religious and secular leaders. By failing to educate the people and by ignoring self-inflicted wounds, these leaders are hurting their own people and any prospect of healthy race relations.
Carol Swain is professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. Her work on representation and race relations has earned her national and international accolades. In 2003, Swain founded the Veritas Institute, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting justice and reconciliation among people of different races, ethnicities, faith traditions, and nations.
Media contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322-NEWS