“One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: it was the black kitten’s fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering): so you see that it couldn’t have had any hand in the mischief.”
— Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
It is a basic tenet of U.S. criminal law that a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a free society the government is required to prove guilt. It’s not the other way around (as it is in many parts of the world). An accused here does not have to prove his or her innocence. Except, as in the current manufactured furor over the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, when the accused is perceived as white (though in fact of mixed Hispanic heritage), and the victim is black.
Such circumstances brew a perfect storm. The race hustlers — the Al Sharptons, the Jesse Jacksons and, sad to say, some of our headline-hunting media — have been quick to assign, or at least imply, guilt in this case. This they have done, not on the basis of evidence produced at trial, but on rumors, conjecture, leaks, interviews with understandably tearful family, and an ill-conceived suspicion that the police, not having made an immediate arrest, must be grossly incompetent or, worse, racist.
In 21st century America, are not those who work in law enforcement and other aspects of the criminal justice system deserving of a presumption of competence and fairness in the discharge of their duties? This is not to say there are no bad cops, no incompetent prosecutors, no biased judges. But their numbers, particularly when one considers the pressures of their work, are astonishingly few. Why are so many so quick to pre-judge them? Do we really want law enforcement here to mirror that in, say, Venezuela? In Iran? In China?
Ignorance in action is a terrible thing. It is shameful when so-called civic leaders, who have no real clue as to the facts in the Trayvon Martin case, jump to conclusions and call their followers into the know-nothing street. It is not only shameful but sad when those doing the jumping include members of Congress and, perhaps, the President himself.
You hear so much today about the evils of racial profiling, which is an undoubted issue here. You find little acknowledgment, even in the best of governmental and academic circles, that profiling is sometimes a necessary evil. We all have heard stories about grandmothers and infants being groped and searched at airport security, while young males who appear to be Arab (all of the 9/11 hijackers were young Arabs) are given perfunctory treatment and cleared for boarding. No screener dares to be accused of racial profiling. Yet is not this self-defeating in terms of real security?
Complaints in black communities across the land abound concerning excessive traffic stops, searches and police patrols. But who can argue that our black communities are not the ones most victimized by criminal activity today? If you were a police chief or a sheriff, where would you deploy the greater part of your assets? Should they dismiss the oft-reported fact that nine out of ten murders of blacks are committed by other blacks? If they did, would they still be accused of racism by those who think it a greater crime than murder?
I remember a discussion concerning racial profiling at this newspaper years ago, long before 9/11. Should we include the race of individuals accused of crime in news stories about the crime? (We had received complaints that such was hurtful to the black community.) We shilly-shallied a bit, and the policy we adopted then was that if a criminal suspect was on the loose, then indeed it was proper to include race in the suspect’s description. If the suspect was in custody, then a physical description would no longer be considered vital to the story. Needless to say this did not please everyone. Nor is everyone or even very many likely to be pleased whatever the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case.
But, of course, that is mere presumption on my part.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.