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Why Many Blacks Oppose Tookie's Clemency

It's a myth that a large majority of African-Americans are against the death penalty.
 
 
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The small crowd of clergy, community activists and death penalty opponents that gathered in front of the Los Angeles courthouse recently was no different than other groups that for weeks have kept up the drum beat for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant Stanley "Tookie" Williams clemency.

There was one very loud exception. A young African-American man shouted that Williams was a thug and a murderer and should die. He was not an agitator or a crank. He represented a body of pro-death penalty sentiment among blacks that has seldom been publicly heard during the great Tookie debate.

I was not surprised when I heard this young man's words, for there are many blacks like him who want Williams dead. The instant I went to bat in my columns for clemency for Williams and against the death penalty in general, the e-mails and comments I got flew hot and heavy. Black critics bitterly reviled me for advocating clemency. They were adamant that Williams must pay for his crimes, and for the murder and mayhem the Crips gang, which he helped found, has unleashed on impoverished black communities.

Their hardened attitude toward Williams flew in the face of conventional wisdom that says that blacks are passionate opponents of the death penalty. They aren't.

During the past decade, even as more whites have said they are deeply ambivalent about the death penalty or oppose it, many blacks continue to say that murderers, even black ones, must pay with their lives. A Harris Interactive poll in August 2001 found that nearly half of black respondents supported capital punishment. Three years later, a Gallup Poll found that black support for the death penalty still hovered at close to 50 percent.

The death penalty debate can no longer be neatly pigeonholed into a black verses white racial divide issue, and with good reason. Whites generally are not at risk from black criminals. Other blacks are. They are more likely to be victims of violent crime or to have friends or relatives who have been crime victims than whites.

The Justice Department's annual crime victim surveys have consistently found that blacks are nearly twice as likely to be victims of murder than whites. The leading cause of death among young black males under age 24 is homicide. In nearly all cases, other blacks will kill them.

Blacks are scared stiff and fed up with that continuing surge in murder violence that tears at black communities. A hint of that came in June 1999. A Justice Department survey that year found that blacks in a dozen cities generally applauded the police. This confounded some black leaders who, like many others, assumed that blacks are inveterate cop haters. They aren't. They are against racist and abusive police officers, and expect and demand efficient, fair policing in their communities.

In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other cities, community activists have staged anti-murder marches, held vigils and have lobbied city and state officials for tougher gun laws. They have also taken a step that once would have been considered racial treason: They have repeatedly demanded that blacks break their code of silence toward the police and help them identify the young shooters.

Then there's the myth of the "soft" black juror. It goes like this: Black jurors are so hateful of white authority that they will gleefully nullify the law and let a black lawbreaker waltz out of court a free man or woman, even if that person is a killer. This is nonsense. In most big cities, blacks make up a majority or a significant percent of those who sit on juries, and they routinely convict other blacks of crimes, including murder, every day. It's true that in past years, blacks were the staunchest opponents of capital punishment.

They had good cause to be. The death penalty was a blatantly racist weapon wielded by prosecutors, particularly in the South, against blacks convicted of rape and murder on the flimsiest of evidence, as long as their alleged victims were white. The death penalty is still used and handed down in a racist fashion. However, crime fears and rampaging murder rates in many black communities have partially trumped that, and made more blacks than ever regard capital punishment not as a weapon to hammer blacks, but to hammer violent criminals.

Tookie certainly no longer fits the label of the violent predator. He has tireless worked to redeem his life, and those of countless other angry, violence-prone youths. But many blacks have lost friends and loved ones to those gun-toting youths. They are unforgiving and unsparing in their rage at them, and they blame Williams for helping to spawn them.

It's unfair to blame one man for the sins of some in the youth generation. But when the body count rises, people look to place blame on someone, and Williams is that someone. It's only a short step from there for them to loudly say that Tookie must die.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).