April 01, 2000

Our Wounds: The Wrongs Continue - Human Rights Magazine, Spring 2000

Our Wounds: The Wrongs Continue

By Damon J. Keith

Seven months after I was appointed to the federal bench, our nation burned. On April 4, 1968, one of this century's great leaders and orators, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. The uprisings that succeeded Dr. King's murder continue to haunt us. They were a reflection of America's inability to deal appropriately with the wounds caused by centuries of institutionalized racism, and a frightful specter of what was to come if we, as a nation, did not aggressively and attentively treat those wounds.

During my thirty-two-year tenure as a federal judge, I have joined in our nation's struggle to heal itself. Without question, we have been enormously successful. There is no denying that. I fear, however, that in the euphoria of our successes, we have lost sight of the work left to be done and the wounds from which we continue to suffer. In short, I believe that there are those who think that racism has been defeated. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Just eight years ago, as National Chairman of the Committee on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, I was scheduled to address the largest gathering of federal judges in the history of our nation. While standing outside of my hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia, waiting for a taxicab to take me to the conference, a white man drove into the hotel's driveway, stepped out of his car, handed me his keys, and walked off, saying, "Boy, would you please park this car." My good friend and fellow committee member, Judge Frank Altimari, wanted to confront the man, tell him who I was, and deride him for his transparent display of prejudice. But I stopped Frank and told him not to bother. I told him that I experienced such situations-to a greater or lesser degree-every day of my life, and that if I attempted to set every such perpetrator straight, my days would consist of little else. Mine is not a unique experience-blacks from coast to coast share in it.

Kevin Merida, a journalist with The Washington Post, eloquently illustrated the distance that we have yet to travel in our battle against racism in an article that The Post published on November 23, 1999. He wrote: "Emancipation brought freedom, but not parity. The civil rights movement knocked down Jim Crow, but vestiges remained. Affirmative action created opportunities, but racism persists."

Indeed, racism persists. And as a consequence, wounds, borne of racism's caustic externalities, are continuously inflicted on Black America, and as such, on America as a whole.

Our nation was appalled twenty-one months ago as we witnessed one of the most gruesome race-based hate crimes in recent history-the dragging of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas. Horrified individuals of all races nationwide lamented the tragedy and expressed disbelief that such a graphic display of virulent racism could occur in 1998. Journalists and commentators railed against the three perpetrators. Progressive people everywhere decried the cold-blooded brutality of the attack. When the third of the three perpetrators was convicted of capital murder on November 18, 1999, the nation seemed to feel that justice had been done and seemed to experience a sense of relief-relief that the terrible crime was finally behind us, and that we would be able to move on and heal our collective wounds.

It makes it easier this way-more comfortable. It has become our tradition. We have convinced ourselves that such crimes, motivated by blind, but furious hatred based on skin color, are anomalous incidents. In doing so, we are able to isolate successfully the incident, identify it as evidence of all that is wrong with race relations in our country, watch as it is resolved to our satisfaction, and then let it fade away into our memories. As the memory fades, so too does the anger we felt when we first heard about the tragedy and the misery we experienced when we first imagined the victim's humiliation and pain.

We have no business, however, feeling so comfortable, because just as the Jasper, Texas, assailants were being convicted, it happened again.

On September 15, 1999, Willie Jarrett, a black man, walked from his home to Konkle's Bar, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to purchase cigarettes. Once there, he and two white men, Charles Raab and Johnny Johnson, struck up a conversation and began to drink together. As the night wound down, Raab and Johnson offered Jarrett a ride home. On the way, they stopped at a gas station so that Raab and Johnson could use the bathroom. After some time, Jarrett went into the gas station convenience store to look for the two men. Not finding them, he returned to the car and waited in the front seat.

When the two men returned from the bathroom, Raab accused Jarrett of trying to steal his car and spewed racial epithets at him. Jarrett insisted that he was not trying to steal the car. In any event, Raab proceeded to beat and kick Jarrett until he could not rise from the ground. Then, according to the only eyewitness-Megan Vivoda, a woman who knew none of the three men-Raab pulled Jarrett's body in front of the car, got into the car, and ran over him. After doing so, Raab backed up and ran over him twice more. Raab then drove off, dragging Jarrett's body under the car. Finally, as Raab started to drive out of the parking lot with Jarrett in tow, he drove past Vivoda who was looking at him with horror. Raab stopped the car, cursed at Vivoda, told her that Jarrett was "just a nigger," pulled Jarrett from under the car, and drove off. By then, Raab had already dragged Jarrett eighty feet. Raab was charged with four crimes, among them, assault with intent to commit murder and ethnic intimidation.

After hearing the evidence at Raab's preliminary examination, Grand Rapids District Judge Michael Christensen ordered Raab to stand trial, concluding that Raab tried to kill Jarrett by running over "the most vital portion of [his] body, his head, underneath the car. He stopped and started and stopped and started." Jarrett survived, but suffered wounds to his face, hands, back, chest, and shoulder. Most notably, one of his eye sockets was broken and half of his left ear was torn from his head. Not many of us know about the Grand Rapids tragedy. It did not receive national news coverage.

Without question, the Jasper dragging was particularly heinous and chilling. Byrd was dragged for three miles, and along the way his body was destroyed-his skin shredded and his head ripped off by a concrete culvert. The crime was unthinkable and received nationwide attention for good reason. The same venom, however, served as the catalyst for Jarrett's attack. Perhaps if Raab had started down the road with Jarrett pinned under the car and dragged Jarrett for three miles rather than eighty feet, Jarrett's story would have made front page news across the country. Maybe if Jarrett had been decapitated and killed, rather than disfigured and badly injured, more of America would know about the incident.

Even fewer of our nation's residents are aware of a recent incident that took place in Orchard Lake, Michigan, in which assailants set a black family's house afire and left messages containing racial slurs and the words "White Power" at the scene. Fewer still know that bigots left a racist note on a black Kalamazoo College student's door and later burned the student's bed. With the exception of the people in the Mid-Michigan Community College community, many never knew that last year, the letters "KKK" were bleached into the carpet in one of the school's classrooms. And virtually no one-aside from the attendees themselves-knows anything about Ku Klux Klan rallies that take place frequently across my state and throughout our country.

Each of these crimes results in a different degree of destruction to person and property, but they are all borne of the same beast-pernicious racism.

Indeed, the United States is rife with occurrences of crimes motivated by racial animus. On November 18, 1998, the FBI announced that 4,321 incidents motivated by racial bias were reported to the Bureau's Uniform Crime Reporting Program that year. These reports account for 56 percent of the 7,755 bias-motivated crimes that were reported. This means that an average of 11.8 racially motivated incidents per day-nearly one every two hours-were reported to the FBI in 1998. Of course, these figures do not account for the countless unreported incidents that we all know occur on a daily basis. Nor do they include the noncriminal indignities, such as my aforementioned encounter in Williamsburg, Virginia, that are equally as damaging.

So when we are forced to confront the brutality of racism's ugliest face, as we were on June 7, 1998, when James Byrd was dragged until he had no life left in him; when we marshal our emotional forces against injustice and breathe sighs of relief upon seeing justice done; and when we struggle to regain comfort within our national community by working to heal the wounds, let us not forget that wounds continue to be inflicted. Let us not forget about Willie Jarrett. Let us not forget the countless other indignities that blacks throughout our country are forced to endure-whether they result in fatalities, nonlethal physical injuries, or untold emotional anguish. Let us not forget about our nation's daily experience with racism.

Once we accept that our battle with racism is ongoing and commit to fighting it as vigorously as we once did, we will be able to devote all of our energy to healing our wounds. Until then, we must work diligently to confront racism-the weapon with which our wounds are inflicted-and to weaken it. Our communities and our country depend on our continued vigilance.

Damon J. Keith has served as a United States Court of Appeals judge for the Sixth Circuit since 1977. Prior to his appointment to the court of appeals, Keith served as Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.