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The Scottsboro Travesty Of 1931 Did Not End Scapegoating Of African-Americans

Ulrich Boser 0

"Didn't some white man in Boston shoot his pregnant wife and then shot hisself, crying, `Oh, niggers did it'?" goes a routine by veteran African-American comic Paul Mooney. "That's why I'm gonna start 900-Blame-a-Nigger. When white folks get in trouble, just call my agency: `I just pushed my mother down the stairs. Send a nigger over here.' "

Mooney's tart barb is based on an ugly truth. Since the days of slavery, white Americans have falsely accused black men of crimes, playing off the racist stereotype of the black male as a criminal and an insatiable sexual beast. Legal scholars call this kind of accusation a racial hoax, and the Boston case of Charles Stuart is one of too many. In 1989, Stuart killed his pregnant wife, shot himself to make it seem he was a victim, too, and blamed a black man. Police even apprehended a suspect. When they began to believe that Stuart was the killer, he committed suicide.

No excuse. Perhaps the most notorious racial hoax centered on the "Scottsboro boys." Two white women charged nine blacks with raping them on a freight train on March 25, 1931. The charges wrecked the young men's lives, though they escaped the vigilante's noose. In the heyday of racial hoaxes, unproven allegations strung up some 5,000 African-Americans, says historian Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Whites didn't need an excuse to kill blacks."

Gangs of young blacks and whites were sneaking a ride that day, chasing jobs and looking for fun. A white boy's shoe trod on a black teen's hand, a fight broke out, and nine blacks were arrested, ages 13 to 20. Then a sheriff caught two more riders, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. Fearful they'd be jailed for hoboing, the white women spun a rape story and fingered the black arrestees, says Dan Carter, author of Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. "Making these accusations placed the girls on a pedestal," he notes. The Huntsville Times wrote: "Death Penalty Properly Demanded in Fiendish Crime of Nine Burly Negroes."

"Burly" was an overstatement. One of the nine was nearly blind, another walked with a cane. Doctors found no sign of rape, but the trial went on. The defendants' attorneys, a known drunk and a rusty 70-year-old, gave no closing argument. And the young men turned on each other. "They all raped her," testified Clarence Norris, claiming he was innocent. Roy Wright, 13, also accused the others. Jailhouse beatings prompted their accusations, they later said. After several days of testimony, the jury decided the "Scottsboro boys," named for the Alabama town where the trial was held, were guilty. All were sentenced to the electric chair, except young Wright.

After the first trial, Ruby Bates recanted, saying the sheriff pressured her. "If I didn't tell the story about these innocent Scottsboro boys," she declared in 1933, "I'd be lynched myself." But Price never wavered, and juries kept believing her, rejecting all appeals. The "boys" spent years in prison, often beaten by guards. A sheriff shot handcuffed Ozie Powell in the head after he had assaulted a guard.

Eventually, Price's hoax sputtered to an end. Alabamians grew weary of endless demonstrations for justice and began to doubt her word. By the mid-1940s, all the Scottsboro defendants were paroled, except Haywood Patterson, who escaped in 1948. He was caught in Michigan, but the governor refused to hand him over to Alabama.

Victoria Price "always believed she was raped," says Raymond Fraley, who handled her 1976 libel suit against NBC for depicting her as a whore in a docudrama. "But I think now [her testimony] was probably a falsehood." James Goodman, author of Stories of Scottsboro, goes a step further. "Their story was fabricated out of whole cloth," he says, stressing the lack of physical evidence.

But Price has plenty of disciples. Katheryn Russell, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland, collected over 40 reports of a white person falsely accusing an African-American from 1987 to 1996 alone. Today's deceptions tend to be short-lived, says Russell, mostly because of better law enforcement and a wary public.

Blacks have pointed to white fall guys as well, although much less frequently and far less successfully. In 1987, Tawana Brawley, 15, accused six white cops of rape. A grand jury later concluded that she lied to deflect her stepfather's wrath when she missed her curfew.

This story first appeared in the August 26, 2002 edition of US News and  World Report.

Shopping For Groceries, I Saw A Man’s Final Moments

Ulrich Boser 0

I saw him three times before he died. The first was when I was striding across the parking lot of Giant Food on Brentwood Road NE last Tuesday night. I heard him rapping quietly to a beat inside his head and turned around and saw him walking behind me. He was young, with dark skin, bright hazel eyes, and a plump face. He wore a puffy black parka and a dark stocking cap.

I saw him again in the bakery aisle when he grabbed a box of chocolate-covered Krispy Kreme doughnuts from the top shelf. I remember seeing his blue jeans then; they were loose and sagged low around his waist.

The third time I saw him, I was moving slowly through the express lane with my six-pack of Beck’s, 2 percent milk, and a box of Special K. Shouting erupted behind me, and I watched as security, including two thick-chested D.C. police officers, followed the man toward the exit. The man hurled curses and angry shouts as he stomped indignantly out of the store. The officers trailed a few feet behind him, with a “this shit again” look on their face.

Once they were outside, Ebony, the teenage checkout clerk, said, “That’s the third time.”

“Third time?”

Ebony explained how a few months earlier a guy was shot in the face as he walked out of the supermarket. She also claimed another man had recently died there, apparently of natural causes.

The two men behind me had their groceries lined up on the belt, separated from mine by a plastic divider. “Great, and we just moved into the neighborhood,” the younger of the two said.

Ebony and I looked at him and didn’t say anything.

“See,” the younger man said to his friend, “you shouldn’t mess with your neighbors in this area. They’ll mess you up.”

That’s when we heard the shots. A few quiet pops.

“They’re shooting out there! They’re shooting,” a person yelled.

The store became quiet, and then a few people rushed to the window.

“Call 911! Call 911!” someone else yelled.

Ebony went on with business, however. And so did I, even as I watched a stream of police cars, sirens blaring, pull into the parking lot. I punched in my Giant BonusCard number, slid my credit card through the machine, and then signed the receipt over the line “You’ve got a Giant on your side.”

I wondered what I would do next.

The manager came out of his glass-enclosed booth. “If you want to leave, leave now,” he said. “They gonna have this place on lockdown.”

I stepped outside with my plastic bags of groceries and saw the man for the fourth and last time. He was at the far end of the parking lot, sprawled next to a grassy curb. Two police officers stood next to him, waiting for the ambulance. The streetlights bathed the man’s body in a soft yellow glow, and I could see his black parka, his white shirt, and the round curve of his belly. He lay perfectly still.

The police quickly put up yellow crime-scene tape and corralled us. We began talking. According to Carolyn Ward, a middle-aged woman dressed in a parka, four cops had chased the man out of the store. “They told him to put the gun down,” she said. “Then they started firing.”

“Did they just kill him?” I asked.

“All I’m saying is that I didn’t see a person in the middle.”

Another woman, older with large bug-eye glasses, refused to give her name but said: “Just be glad you weren’t a witnesses,” she said. “’Cause you could have been a dead witness.”

But it was Robbie Lewis who knew the most—and a crowd of other witnesses soon surrounded him. “It was my daughter who was in there. She works there,” he said.

He explained that his daughter had dropped some cheese in the produce section when the man came up behind her and rubbed himself against her. She had called security. She had also called her father, who came running across the parking lot when he saw the killing.

“[The man] was brandishing the gun outside the store,” Lewis said. “He took the first hit, and then he fumbled. He didn’t put the gun down, though....The police, yup, they killed him.”

Over the next few days, I continued to follow the story in the Washington Post. The two articles the paper devoted to the incident were small—a few hundred words each. According to the first story, the man had fired a shot at the police with a sawed-off shotgun. The cops had fired back and killed him.

The first story didn’t identify the man. But I had spent the last few moments of his life with him, and I wanted to know who he was. Two days after the incident, on Page B10, the paper printed his name: Charles M. Gaines, 18, of the 1300 block of Bryant Street NE.CP

This article first appeared in the Washington City Paper on March 25, 2005.

Q and A with Randolph Roth about his new book American Homicide

Ulrich Boser 0

For an academic book, Randolph Roth's new book American Homicide has received a ton of press. Newsweek, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post have all written reviews. In many ways, it's not surprising. Roth's book--published by the Belknap Press of Harvard--is one of the most definitive comparative studies of homicide in the United States ever published, looking at murder from colonial times to the present. The book looks particularly at the why why the United States has become arguably the world’s most homicidal society.

Roth's book has received good reviews. "A vast investigation of murder, in the aggregate, and over time," wrote the New Yorker. I emailed a few questions to Roth before the holidays. His answers are below.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I initially set out to write a book on northern New England’s nonviolent culture, to understand why northern New Englanders were virtually non-homicidal. As I gathered data beyond the time period I first studied, however, I discovered that they were not: by the mid-nineteenth century they had become more homicidal than their counterparts in England, Canada, and other Western nations.

However, when I separated by type the homicides I had found in New Hampshire and Vermont, I discovered that there were distinct patterns of homicide that made sense in terms of New England’s history. Murders of children by adult relatives or caregivers followed a long, smooth curve that was the inverse of the birth-rate: high fertility meant a low child murder rate and low fertility meant a high murder rate. Marital homicides and romance homicides jumped suddenly in the 1830s and 1840s: decades in which jobs opened to women in education and industry and in which the ideal of companionate marriage took hold. Homicides among unrelated adults peaked during periods of political turmoil: the Revolution, the Embargo crisis, and the sectional crisis. It appeared (as I put it in a grant application in 1997) that “state breakdowns and political crises of legitimacy produce surges in nondomestic homicides and that the restoration of order and legitimacy produces declines in such homicides.” The same pattern was evident on the national level in the twentieth century. It appeared that the stronger sense of national unity during World War II and the Cold War may have reduced homicide rates through the 1950s, wheras the political crisis of the 1960s and 1970s may have contributed to soaring homicide rates.

Thanks to support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was able to study other places in the United States to see if the patterns I found in northern New England were typical and if patterns elsewhere coincided with similar political events. They were, and they did. That is how a book on northern New England became a comparative, interregional history of homicide in the United States from colonial times to the present.

What was the biggest surprise?

I was surprised that people’s views about the legitimacy of government and about their fellow citizens correlate so strongly with how often they kill unrelated adults—much more strongly than other factors such as guns, poverty, drugs, race, or a permissive justice system. The predisposition to murder really does appear to be rooted in these feelings and beliefs. Although they seem impossibly remote from murder, they appear to hold the key to understanding why the United States is so homicidal today.
I was also surprised that the patterns of different kinds of homicide were so distinct: that marital homicides, romance homicides, and child homicides follow such different patterns from homicides among unrelated adults. Only homicides among unrelated persons correlate with feelings and beliefs about government and society.

Finally, I was surprised to learn how different murder rates in the past were from present-day murder rates. For example, in the early nineteenth century the North and the mountain South were among the least homicidal places in the Western world. Prior to the twentieth century blacks were less homicidal than whites. I had no idea, either, that marital homicides and romance homicides were so rare in the colonial and early national period. That’s the great thing about historical research: more often than not, it confounds our expectations and forces us to rethink our assumptions about the past and present.

What's it like studying murder? As I read the book, I found myself getting numb to homicide. Does that happen to you? How do you prevent it? 

I have a lot of friends and colleagues who deal with violence: homicide detectives, trauma surgeons, forensic pathologists, toxicologists, firearms experts, prosecuting attorneys, family advocates, and scholars. Homicides never really become routine. We each know thousands of cases by heart, and we run through them over and over, trying to figure out what could have been done to prevent them or to convict perpetrators who escaped justice. And there are cases that shock even the most experienced people. It is difficult to discuss the force it would take to snap the flexible backbone of a two-year old child, or how a suspect revealed he was a deer hunter by the way he cut up a young woman’s body. I try to remain mindful of what I am dealing with by remembering that almost every murder is the source of unimaginable pain to someone who cared about the victim or the perpetrator.

In the New Yorker's review of your book, they write: "The implications of Roth’s argument are, as he realizes, distressing. Democracy requires dissent. If a high American murder rate is a function of not placing our trust in government, are we doomed to endure a high murder rate?" How would you answer that question? Does the answer really go all the way to the White House?

Dissent and debate can be compatible with low homicide rates. America was probably the least homicidal society in the Western world in the 1830s and early 1840s, despite the fact that Jacksonian politics were extremely combative. The reviewer for the New Yorker missed that point.

But when a dedicated minority challenges the legitimacy of government and of fundamental social institutions, as happened during the Revolution, the struggle against slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, and the civil rights struggle of the twentieth century, the homicide rate among unrelated adults will increase, at least in the short run. Political struggles that destabilize government, polarize political debate, delegitimize institutions, and turn citizens against each other can have devastating effects, as the Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and the upheavals of the 1960s attest. In the long run, however, such political struggles can lead to lower homicide rates, as the Revolution did in the North and the mountain South, by creating a more cohesive, legitimate, democratic, inclusive, and stable society.
Democracy requires dissent, but it also requires a commitment to democratic ideals. Introducing those ideals into societies bound by caste and class is profoundly disruptive. But in the long run, overcoming caste and class distinctions can make societies more democratic, stable, and non-violent.

The subhead to the final chapter is: "Can America's murder problem be solved?" And while the book is some 475 pages long, you only devote a dozen or so pages to a potential solution. Why? And do you really think America's murder problem can be solved?

I’m a social science historian, and my primary goal was to identify and understand patterns of human behavior in the past. In talking about a potential solution I only wanted to point out that if the past is any indication, homicide rates will fall when we have what Richard Hofstadter referred to as comity—a moral and social cohesiveness that transcends differences over politics, religion, gender, class, race, ethnicity, etc. I do think politicians can play a role in promoting comity. Obviously, centrists who eschew polarization are more likely to be able to do that than those who demonize their opponents. But when political divisions run deep, even great leaders like Abraham Lincoln may be unable to change the feelings and beliefs that cause violence.

On the Bargain Express: The route to a college degree may pass through two-year schools, ROTC, or Mom’s kitchen

Ulrich Boser 0

Vanessa Flores always wanted to attend the University of Southern California. She grew up near the school in Los Angeles, and her mother worked at the university as a contracts manager. But when USC offered Flores admission, her mother and father balked at the nearly $10,000 in room and board costs. So Flores struck a deal with her folks: She would live on campus her freshman and sophomore years and then stay at home and commute the following two years. "It was tough living with my parents," she says. "You can't just roll out of bed and go right to class. You have to get in your car and drive." Yet, she adds, "I saved anywhere between $15,000 to $20,000."


MAKING A DEAL. Vanessa Flores helped her parents afford to send her to the University of Southern California by agreeing to live two years at home.
As the price of a college degree soars-tuition at four-year, public universities shot up 7 percent on average last year-students are increasingly considering less expensive alternatives to the traditional college experience, including attending a community college, living at home, or joining the military. While such strategies can cut college costs in half, experts warn that they can backfire. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who enroll in two-year colleges or carve out time to work before enrolling in school end up taking longer to get their degrees-and are more likely to drop out. "There are a lot of ways to cut down on costs," says financial planner KC Dempster. "But parents need to take the time-and students need to take the time-to evaluate them. They aren't right for everyone."

Community college has become one of the most attractive options for students who want a low-cost, four-year degree. The schools are inexpensive-average annual tuition is $2,191-and they can serve as a springboard to four-year universities. After attending Hostos Community College in New York City for five semesters, Folashad Kornegay transferred this year to New York University. "I always knew I would go to a four-year school," she says. "Community college is a great place to start out. It's cheap, and there are a lot of opportunities to learn."

But making the leap from a two-year school to a four-year institution isn't always easy. Credits earned at a community college might not all transfer, and university hopefuls have to perform well academically to get an offer of admission. To make her application attractive to NYU, Kornegay enrolled in a rigorous set of liberal arts courses, participated in various extracurriculars, and maintained a 3.6 grade-point average. When considering a community college, students should be sure to ask about transfer rates. While some two-year schools send only 5 percent of their students on to four-year colleges, others transfer over 30 percent. In recent years, some states like Florida and Pennsylvania have eased the transfer process by guaranteeing community college graduates a spot at one of the states' four-year universities.

Other students have found the Reserve Officers Training Corps a successful way to pay for college. The Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTC train students to be military officers while they earn their degrees. About half of all cadets receive scholarships, which vary in size by school and armed service division, and all juniors and seniors receive tax-free stipends of several hundred dollars for living expenses. Students who win ROTC scholarships can quit after freshman year and owe nothing. But anyone who leaves during sophomore year or later must pay back the balance to Uncle Sam.

This article first appeared in US News and World Report.

A New Law is Put To the Test

Ulrich Boser 0

This article ran in US News and World Report in March of 2004. You can find it online here.

The No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education-reform bill signed into law just over two years ago, takes a carrot-and-stick approach to improving school performance. But the Somers School District in northern Connecticut has been so frustrated with the stick--the labeling and sanctions (including the possibility of state takeover) faced by schools that don't meet federal standards--that last year it rejected the carrot. After Somers High School was placed on an academic watch list for what local officials consider trivial reasons (it tested 94.3 percent of its students rather than the required 95 percent), the district refused some $45,000 in No Child Left Behind money. That's only a small fraction of the system's $15 million annual budget; school leaders say the extra funds just weren't worth the hassle. "To say the money comes with strings attached is an understatement," says Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. "It comes with ropes and anchors."

Somers is one of a growing number of districts and states rebelling against the new education law, which President Bush championed with bipartisan support. The legislation requires not only annual testing but also score breakdowns by race and socioeconomic status to ensure that schoolwide averages don't mask failure for some groups. It also calls for students in failing schools to receive money for outside tutoring or to be given the option of transferring elsewhere.

Educators don't quarrel with the goal of boosting student achievement, but many resent the way the law is being implemented. Legislators in over a dozen states--including Maine, Virginia, and Washington--have passed or are considering symbolic resolutions calling for more flexibility and funding under the 700-page law. Critics, including many Republican state legislators who aren't typically at odds with the Bush administration, have a litany of objections, notably the law's heavy costs and what they view as its infringement on local control.

For its part, the Bush administration has taken steps to stop the backlash. It has eased accountability requirements for non-English-speaking and disabled students, thus lowering the number of schools that will be labeled as failing. But it has also warned states that if they drop out of the program, all of their federal education funding for disadvantaged kids--not just No Child Left Behind grants--will be cut. That could mean a revenue loss of almost 15 percent in some poorer districts.

Still, the protests are likely to continue. This year, some 6,000 schools were labeled "in need of improvement." That number could increase to 25,000, or about one third of the nation's schools, as more of the law's accountability standards kick in over the next two years. Says Diane Rentner, deputy director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy: "The big fights have yet to come."