The recent rash of racial repentance cases, that have made it onto the docket of the high court of public opinion tell us three things about our country and culture:
1. We are still suffering from the vestiges of the sin of slavery proving that time definitely does not heal all wounds.
2. We live in a surveillance state of modern technology. Our words and actions are constantly being capture, unfortunately sometimes without context and our analog past is quickly being digitized.
3. Like our criminal justice system, the court of public opinion for racial repentance has not completely decided whether or not it is rehabilitative or punitive.
When we deal with the issues of individuals being accused of doing something or saying something that is racially insensitive there are three concentric lenses that they can be viewed through:
1. The individual – is this person actually guilty of what s/he is being charged with and if they are is there some context that could mitigate their actions and also if the action was in the distant past has the person changed. Sometimes it is impossible to know the first part and because we don’t know what’s in a person’s heart we have no way of knowing for sure the last part.
2. Those personally impacted – these are the friends, family, colleagues and victims of the alleged act. These are usually the best people to judge the questions of context and motivation mentioned above.
3. The public – these are the people who hear about this but may not be personally impacted by the act.
So let’s take a quick look at the three cases through the aforementioned lenses:
Case #1 – Blackface – 1980’s vs today
The State of Virginia’s executive leadership has egg on its face from a past plague of black face antics from Gov. Ralph Northam and now Attorney General Mark Herring who also just admitted to participating in the practice in the 1980’s. Many are calling for the governor to resign which is complicated by the fact that the next in line for the job, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault, a charge which he vehemently denies.
We have no way of knowing whether or not Northam or Herring are racist. We don’t have the complete context of the situation. However, in this case it doesn’t really matter whether or not he is racist. The people personally impacted and the public are basically the same and the facts of the case and Northam’s explanation and handling thereof have eroded the public trust of a significant part of his constituency calling into question his ability to govern fairly. Being governor is a privilege not a right and if he believes in the sanctity of the office then he should realize that at this point it’s not about what’s best for him but about what is best for the state of Virginia and the country in general.
An interesting aside for those of us who are black on the high court is whether or not we are going to apply the same standards of the public trust to the black lieutenant governor in regards to the sexual assault accusations if and when Northam resigns, but that’s a whole other case.
Case #2 – Can you plead the Fifth after you’ve already confessed?
Actor Liam Neeson in an attempt to bare his soul, told a story in an interview with the Independent of how he went out looking to pick a fight with a random black person after he had learned that a friend of his had been raped by a black man. After telling the story Neeson said, “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that. And I’ve never admitted that, and I’m saying it to a journalist. God forbid. “It’s awful. But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the f*** are you doing,’ you know?
This interview has sparked outrage and calls for events with Neeson to be cancelled, for him to be digitally removed from a film – in essence, some members of the high court are asking for him to be blackballed.
One of the main reasons that we are still suffering from our slave past is that a significant part of the wound is psychological and emotional. In many ways the issue of race is like the mental health crisis in our country. The wounds may not be visible but nonetheless the pain is real. We will never be able to heal those deep seated wounds unless we are able to have an open and honest conversation about them.
In actuality, I believe that is what Neeson was trying to do – admit an ugly thing about himself that he was not proud of, but in his own mind was able to get past and now was ready and willing to discuss publicly.
The problem with the court of public opinion is that there is no statute of limitations on racial misconduct and many feel that offenders should be found out and punished accordingly even if they are contrite in their admission. This case gets to the heart of whether or not the high court of public opinion is rehabilitative of punitive. Neeson is an actor who ostensibly makes his living $10 at a time from the movie going public. Unfortunately for him many on the court of public opinion also buy movie tickets and his dose of reality may have been too much for them to continue to suspend disbelief with him at the cinema.
Case #3 – Is anything private, what’s next my thoughts?
The private conversations and thoughts of Joe Ricketts, the billionaire patriarch of the Chicago Cubs ownership and founder and former CEO and chairman of TD Ameritrade, became public through some leaked emails. Like Donald Sterling before him, the private racist and xenophobic rants of a rich sports owner have made their way into the public record.
The problem with the Ricketts case as well as the Sterling case before him is that although those emails were clearly not meant for public consumption, unfortunately for them the court of public opinion can’t unread or unhear them. This is like when there is an outburst or some piece of evidence that wasn’t supposed to make it into a court case and somehow the jury sees or hears it, the judge usually instructs them to disregard the information – don’t let it impact how you decide the case.
That’s much easier said than done. The only thing that I have to offer in the Ricketts case is the same thing I wrote about years ago with Donald Sterling. In the emerging surveillance state of modern technology, ask yourself what would happen if someone read or heard something that you said that you thought was private and now it is being used as a defining part of your character. If you are honest with yourself then you would probably have some level of empathy for Ricketts.
But similar to Northam owning a sports franchise is a privilege not a right and there is a public trust inherit in that as well.
Three things that we should lean on most before we offer our verdict on cases of racial misconduct that come before the court of public opinion are:
1. The preponderance of evidence – does the public and private record of the person accused match the accusation.
A white friend of mine who is a lifelong New England Patriot fan told me before the Super Bowl that he wasn’t sure that he could continue to root for Tom Brady because he was a Trump supporter. After a short conversation I asked him if there was anything that exists in Brady’s public persona or things that others have said about him in their private interactions that would lead you to believe that he is like the stereotypical Trump supporter that he was making him out to be. His answer was no and I’m glad to say that the conversation gave him pause and made him think.
2. Context and Consequences – when possible we should always try our best to understand the context in these cases, but also understand that consequences may still ensue even though the context may completely mitigate or explain away the action.
The other night two of my grandchildren’s high school’s played against each other. In one sequence one of them drove to the basket and was fouled by the other. The one that was fouled fell to the ground. The one that fouled him made a playful snide remark to his brother that drew him a technical foul from the referee. He plead his case saying, “He’s my brother. I was just joking.” The referee didn’t know this and was right to call the technical.
3. The best thing to does is usually not the easiest – sometimes it feels good to exact a pound of flesh, to get a measure of revenge. However, the best thing in the end may to try your best to move forward, to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to give the benefit of the doubt, to forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for bad behavior. Dylann Roof, the self-proclaimed racist who intended to start a race war by killing innocent parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, ran into something I’m sure he couldn’t conceive and certainly didn’t expect when he crossed enemy lines. While he sat in his mental fox hole in the pews at Emmanuel for over an hour, his soon to be victims unleashed a preemptive strike on the unknown enemy in their midst, a barrage from their own arsenal – love. Many of the family members of those who were massacred by Roof chose to forgive him.
They didn’t exonerate or absolve him, they forgave him. He will still spend the rest of his life in prison and deservedly so. I think there’s a lesson in there for us all on the high court of public opinion.