Saturday, January 26, 2008

Al Sharpton Scores a Touchdown: The Indictment of Jeremiah Munsen and the Politics of Hate

A couple of days ago I received an e-mail asking me what I thought of the indictment of an 18-year-old Louisiana teenager, Jeremiah Munsen, on federal hate crime charges for adorning his pickup truck with two nooses and slowly driving the truck so that it would be seen by a group of pro-Jena Six marchers. My e-mail correspondent wanted to get my response before Mr. Sharpton had an opportunity to turn the whole affair into a “smoke & mirrors, dog and pony show.” If convicted, Munsen faces “a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison and a $350,000 fine.”

The indictment of the 18-year-old comes as part of what many of us hope is the culmination of a series of unfortunate events that have included marches led by Mr. Sharpton and counter-demonstrations by white nationalists and members of the New Black Panther Party. Mr. Sharpton has issued a statement calling Munsen’s indictment “appropriate and a step in the right direction.” But is it really?

Sharpton was in the forefront of demanding that federal authorities file hate crime charges against anyone found dangling nooses. Mr. Sharpton and other black leaders organized national and local marches on behalf of a group of black teenagers known as the Jena Six. The Jena Six were black teens arrested and originally charged with attempted second degree murder and conspiracy charges for their brutal beating of Justin Barker, a white classmate who required hospital treatment for his injuries. Under the glare of a national spotlight, charges against the black teens were reduced before Rev. Al Sharpton and 20,000 activists descended on the small Louisiana town of Jena, in an effort to free Mychal Bell. Bell was one of the six teens who remained in jail because his involvement in the beating constituted a probation violation for prior offenses hidden in a sealed juvenile record. (It should be noted that accounts differ about what actually happened in Jena, see and

It was during a September 2007 march that Munsen, a drunken teenager from a neighboring town got with another teen and came up with the bright idea of dangling two nooses from his truck and taunting marchers. Munsen has already been booked on state charges of inciting a riot, being drunk in public, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Does the severity of Munsen’s actions warrant the additional federal charges that could send him to prison and wipe out a healthy chunk of his lifetime earnings?

Let’s consider the purpose of hate crime laws. Hate crime laws are designed to protect individuals from violence caused by intolerance of 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. Therefore, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that marchers were endangered and intimidated by the mere sight of two nooses dangling from a truck driven by a drunken teenager. If anything, the nooses dangling from Munsen’s truck could have provoked violence against Munsen and his 16-year-old passenger.

Although the indictment of Munsen on hate crime charges may momentarily appease the crowd and satisfy Rev. Sharpton’s appetite for media coverage, it will do absolutely nothing to improve race relations across the nations or make reasonable black people feel any safer. To the contrary, Munsen’s indictment if seen as unfair could incite more such incidents and more counter demonstrations.

I would like to see racial healing in Jena. The Psalmist wrote in Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season”. Perhaps, with the right leadership, this can be the season for forgiveness and new beginnings for the young people blinded by the madness of Jena and this includes Jeremiah Munsen.


See related Swain editorials, "Why Black America shouldn't be focused on hanging nooses," The Baltimore Sun, December 5, 2007 and "Jena Six and the Deadly Sneaker, The Tennessean, October 5, 2007.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Race, Gender, and Reality: The Inadequacies of the 2008 Presidential Debates

A married mother of five recently sent me an e-mail in which she stated:

"Why is it taboo to talk about race or gender in the upcoming presidential election? Obama is African American and Clinton is female. When people say that they hope the election is not about race or gender that simply infuriates me. I am interested in issues that impact my life and future. I am also concerned about what kind of opportunities will be available for my children. So ignoring race or gender is like saying I'm invisible. African Americans and women are often ignored. If Obama wins the election, headlines will read "First African American or Black President." If Clinton wins, the headlines will read "First Woman President". So why are race and gender issues being ignored?"

Like the little boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, this woman has voiced an important truth. Americans need to be able to probe each candidate’s beliefs on issues that matter most to them. At the end of the day, the best representative for a given person could be someone outside one’s own racial, ethnic, or gender group. We will never know who is best for us, unless we can raise the right questions at the right time using our media and other surrogates. In some cases, the answers we hear could and should move us beyond our traditional party alliances.

So far, the Democratic presidential candidates have disappointed many of us with their refusal to deal honestly with issues such as immigration reform, urban crime, wage inequities, gender discrimination, and the growing conflict between blacks and Hispanics over neighborhood turf, affirmative action, and other issues perceived to be zero sum for America’s minorities.

Instead of raising substantive issues, our valuable time is being wasted by endless debates about real and imagined racial slights. Consider the widely broadcast so-called racially insensitive remarks of Senator Hillary Clinton which occurred when she stated a well-known fact. It took a president to bring about the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of racial equality. Of course, Clinton was correct. It took President Lyndon B. Johnson to push through and sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. I doubt if any amount of marching or rioting could have achieved the results that came about when white and black leaders joined forces to accomplish the national interest.

Unfortunately, a dangerous racial double standard has emerged that is harmful to all Americans, especially its non-white beneficiaries. What is missing is an overdue conversation about race, gender, class, and culture in American society.

I think that my e-mail correspondent’s question deserves an answer from the powers that be. Our nation needs an honest dialogue about gender discrimination, black youth crime, drug abuse rather than merely incarceration rates, the impact of illegal immigration on low-wage, low-skill Americans’ job prospects, as well as the harmful effects of unassimilated diversity that, in some cases, have led to honor killings and behaviors that offend the sensibilities of most Americans.

Instead of being overly sensitive, we must learn to respect, cherish, and exercise the freedom of speech guaranteed by our Constitution. Indeed, no question should be off-limits for the man or woman seeking to attain the highest office in the land.
2007 Carol M. Swain. Web design by CSP