Thursday, August 03, 2006

It's Still Here

Lately, I've heard conservatives bold enough to claim that racism is a thing of the past. But as the case of Robert Lee Cooke shows, it's still a problem, it's here and it's institutionalized.

Mr. Cooke was tried and convicted of burglary and fatally shooting Ingo, a police dog. His sentence: ten years. Which, as Mr. Cooke has pointed out in a recent interview with C-Ville weekly, is absurd when compared to another recent high-profile crime.

The news has been abuzz lately about Andrew Alston, a former UVA student convicted of fatally stabbing a local firefighter who has just been released from his three year sentence.

Now, how does this make any sense?

Perpetrator 1: A family man who is poor, comes from tough neighborhood and is black.

Perpetrator 2: A white student from a wealthy family.

Perpetrator 1: Someone who, while pointing out that social pressures existed which may have led him to commit a crime, has publically taken full responsibility for his burglary.

Perpetrator 2: Someone who had the audacity to claim that his victim somehow stabbed himself 22 times.

Perpetrator 1: Someone whose crime (aside from the burglary) is surrounded by a lot of doubt, and who was actually paralyzed from the waist down after being shot by the police.

Perpetrator 2: Somone whose crime was committed in a public arena, and whose guilt did not seem to be surrounded by much doubt.

Frankly, I don't see how perp 1 deserved any more jail time than perp 2. While Cooke is probably (or was before his paralysis) more likely to commit crime again, as a simple consequence of his sociological background, is it better for society to keep him locked up than a man who so lacked restrained that he solved a petty dispute in full view of the public with a knife? What happens the next time a bar patron accidentally gives him the wrong kind of look?

While I can't see how Alston deserved any less jail time than Cooke, it's fairly obvious why it turned out that way.

Black vs. White.
Poor vs. Rich.

Did Cooke's attorney, no doubt court appointed, have the time to adequately prepare his case? Certainly his lawyer didn't have the time to come up with a fanciful defense as in the Alston case (the dog shot himself?). I think it's clear that money, and race to the extent that it is tied to economic status and circumstances, had huge ramifications for both Cooke and Alston.

The Cooke story reads like a broken record. From the CVille story:
Cooke was first incarcerated when he was 18, on robbery and drug charges. After serving nine years, he was released in 2000. Then, he says, 'I was working, doing what I was supposed to be doing.'

The decision to return to crime in 2004 wasn't entirely his own, Cooke insinuates, 'On the streets, somebody asks you for something... you be a friend,' he says.

This is not Cooke rationalizing his past. There is a reason that numerous young black men in poor neighborhoods, men like Cooke, are involved in lives of crime. There are reasons that if you're a black male, you have a 30% chance of being incarcerated in your lifetime. And those reasons are economic. It's all about money and power, or your society's lack thereof. It's the same reason that despite their odds, of all the black men I have known to this day, I can't think of a single one who has been incarcerated. That's because they're like me... middle class. They come from stable familes. Many of them have a college education.

But, in the 'hood' there is no money. There is very frequently a lack of family support. There is almost always an expectation of violence and being a general loser from society at large. While I'm too far removed from my sociology and criminology courses to recall the exact theories, there are numerous forces exerted on people growing up and living in Cooke's situation, and not one of them is positive.

Imagine it. You're born. Chances are, your father is already gone. You live in a very small house or apartment. You're dirt poor. There's no air conditioning in the sweltering summer and the house is drafty in the winter. Your neughborhood is violent. Sounds of police sirens and gunshots are routine. You might see people killed violently at a very young age. When you do get older, the best employment opportunity for someone from your neighborhood is Wal-Mart or McDonald's, especially since you probably didn't finish high school. But there are also pressures from the neighborhood. When you have free time, you can't go to the mall, or the movies. You can't go to a restaurant. Not only can you not afford it in the first place, but "your kind" is unwelcome there. So, you hang out. You drink with your friends. You get in trouble. When you want something, you might steal it, even if you don't really want to. Then, quite young, there are the pressures to take or deal drugs, to join a gang, to take part in the only industry the neighborhood can call its own.

It's a dangerous and self-destructive existence. And while Mr. Cooke may or may not have had this existence, it is not that rare, especially in other parts of the country, and I'm sure elements of this existence were present in his life. The robbery and drug charges at the ripe old age of 18 are a definite indicator that Mr. Cooke is under some of those pressures.

And that's the thing. Unless you are willing to completely sever ties with your background, and somehow have money to support such a move, that life tends to suck you back in. Mr. Cooke was doing what he was supposed to, but he was asked to "do a favor." For Cooke to risk his job, his family, his stability to return to crime, the ramifications of declining to do that favor must have been dire.

And then, he enters the court system. A system removed from that lifestyle, but it still mired in low expectations for anyone from it. So, Mr. Cooke must be a threat to society, even though he seems to have twice the brains than the educated, articulate Mr. Alston.

Of course this is a vicious cycle, with no answer that can come from the people within it, and with the people outside of it seemingly unwilling to do anything about it. Are we oblivious? Are we willing to put up with crime in this community in order to create an underclass or stifle competition? Major changes are needed on a societal level, not simply the eradication of racism, though that would certainly help. Changes with how we think of and deal with those who are vulnerable in our society. Not just give them a handout and shut them up. But to actually enable them to succeed. It's a tall order, but it can be done.

4 Comments:

Blogger Vivian J. Paige said...

Very good post!

8/03/2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger Howling Latina said...

It's even more horrifying when life and death hang in the balance.

8/03/2006 9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that racism still exists - that much is obvious. Your choice of examples is poor - Cooke shot and killed a police dog, a member of law enforcement. He had a previous record. Alston killed a guy in a fight that went way too far, but he didn't shoot at the cops. Alston should have been given far more time - I attribute that to being able to pay for a tricky lawyer rather than being white (see OJ Simpson).

Here is a different view: Cooke should have been given far more time, too, but he wasn't only because he is now disabled. Does that mean the rest of us are victimized by an institutional bias against able-bodiedness?

8/04/2006 8:35 AM  
Blogger Dan Kachur said...

I personally have no problem with someone's sentence being shortened because they were paralyzed. Not only does that paralysis make them less of a threat to society, but I think it can be considered part of their punishment. At best, Cooke is destined for agonizing physical therapy. At worst, it's a life sentence.

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not this was factored into the sentencing.

8/05/2006 8:29 PM  

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