GAINESVILLE, Fla. — How did O.J. Simpson – hardly an activist on black issues before his arrest – become a hero to some in the black community after being charged with murder? Why were blacks willing to vote for former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry after he was convicted of drug charges? And why is the black community less likely to extend similar support to noncelebrity blacks who face prosecution for crimes?
In her new book, “Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime, and African Americans,” University of Florida law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown takes an unflinching look at how race, crime, fame and gender affect public attitudes toward people involved in public scandals. The book includes a foreword by New York University law professor Derrick Bell, a founding figure in the field of Critical Race Theory.
“This book was inspired by the O.J. Simpson case,” said Russell-Brown, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at UF’s Levin College of Law. “I was intrigued by the black community’s support for O.J., when he had in many ways separated himself from the community.”
Opinions about the Simpson verdict remain seriously divided along racial lines, with a majority of blacks believing he was set up and a majority of whites convinced he got away with murder. In that and other racially charged criminal cases, each side is mystified by the other side’s decision-making process.
Russell-Brown examined 30 cases involving what she labels “black protectionism.” She also held focus groups with blacks and finds there is a simple explanation for the black-white divide in these cases.
“When white people hear that a black celebrity is accused of a crime, they ask one question: Did he do it?” Russell-Brown said. “For African-Americans, there’s a longer list of questions. Did he do it? If he did, was he set up? Is he the only person who has committed this offense? And is he being treated the same as whites who have done the same thing?”
Those questions are rooted in American history, which is rife with examples of entrapment and false prosecution of blacks, Russell-Brown said.
She notes specific historical examples of black celebrities who faced criminal charges that, even if true, seem in retrospect to be the result of selective prosecution. For example, after boxing great Jack Johnson defeated a white man to win the heavyweight title in 1910, he was convicted of transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Similarly, U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem in Congress, spent months defending himself against a $3,000 tax evasion lawsuit.
Whether or not those people were guilty, Russell-Brown said, it is clear today that they were charged because they were outspoken, powerful and black. It’s a lesson black people remember when they hear that a rich or
famous black man is charged with a crime, she said.
“Russell-Brown’s book takes a fresh perspective on the concept of linked fate, the idea that African-Americans are alternately embarrassed, protective about, or inspired by the acts of famous or infamous members of their race, by using focus groups and critical race theory to analyze this confounding phenomenon,” said Randolph Stone, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago.
Blacks aren’t the only people who engage in protectionism, Russell-Brown notes. White people extend a similar protectionism to police officers facing charges of brutality. She cites the example of the beating of Rodney King, which was caught on video tape, and the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was shot by New York police who had falsely concluded he was a serial rapist.
“In these cases, white people noted that the police have a tough job, that they have to make split-second decisions, or, in the King case, that we really don’t know what happened before the tape was turned on,” Russell-Brown said.
Russell-Brown said she is concerned about the black community’s failure to extend protection to black defendants of average means, who deserve the presumption of innocence.
“The larger community gains when every member is valued and afforded the same protections, regardless of their fame or fortune,” Russell-Brown said.
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