Many of you know that I was born and raised in Paris, Texas. For months, I have been following a truly disturbing situation that has been unfolding in my hometown. The news of this story made it's way to the Chicago Tribune last week (click link to get the Tribune's Account).
It's the story of now 15-year old Shaquanda Cotton. Shaquanda, a young black female, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for shoving a 58 year-old hall monitor at school when she was 14. Shaquanda was a first time offender, so the harshness of sentence handed out by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville more than troubling. According to the Tribune story, "95 percent of the 2,500 juveniles in their custody are chronic, serious offenders who already have exhausted county-level programs."
In contrast, three months earlier, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl, convicted of arson for burning down her family's house, to probation. Didn't we just cover this with Tyrone Brown who was sentenced to 99 years for smoking marijuana while out on probation for armed robbery? And in the same court a white man who pled guilty to murder violated his probation by smoking crack, repeatedly failed drug tests, was arrested for cocaine possession and remained free.
In instances like Shaquanda's racism will always come into play, but since I lived in Paris for the first 18 years of my life and my mothers still lives there, I'd like to give my take on various aspects of this unfortunate situation.
Pretending there's no racism solves nothing
Howard Witt, author of the Tribune story, chose to lead the article by referring back to the days when the Lamar County Fairgrounds in Texas was used as a venue for lynching its black citizens. I remember a picture in my Texas History book from 7th grade that showed a public lynching from the 20's or 30's that was taking place at the fairgrounds in Paris. If I hadn't been thumbing through the book I never would have seen it. We never studied that section of the textbook. And no one, not parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers; no one ever taught us about the fairground's former life as a hanging field.
Enter Phillip Hamilton of the Paris News. In his article Truth Gets In Way of Tribune Story, Mr. Hamilton characterizes Witt's Tribune account as "a journalistic lynching," as well as " …lashed with false statements, omitted facts and inaccurate information." Hamilton also disputes Witt's characterization of Paris as a "starkly segregated town of 26,000."
Mr. Hamilton may have drawn upon some emotionally charged imagery to open his article, but injustice can never be over exaggerated, no matter who it happens too. The lynching that Mr. Witt accounts in his Tribune article was most likely The Lynching of Henry Smith in 1893. There's no way to soften the realities of a man whose body was burned with hot irons, and then had them shoved down his throat for good measures. Mr. Hamilton even leads his story with the account of a 1920 lynching in Paris. But as is so often the case in this country, his version is sanitized and seen more as a local misstep than the abomination that it truly is. The children and grandchildren of the lynched and lynchers probably still reside in or near the town.
And furthermore Paris is extremely segregated, as is the case in most cities across this country. Anyone who is white that is reading this article ask yourself this question: how many of your immediate neighbors are non-white? To your right, your left, across the street? I'm not talking about the black family down the street who "integrated" the neighborhood. I grew up on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr, what do you think that my neighbors looked like? There is a black side of town in Paris, anyone who denies that is not being real with themselves. Many white families have moved outside the city limits to avoid going to Paris High School where African-Americans make up about 40% of the student body.
Denying the facts, or more specifically the reality of the situation will not help us overcome the troubling place in which we find ourselves. Everyone is so afraid of being a racist, they don't even acknowledge that they could use race as a factor for anything. You can make racist decisions without being a racist person just like you can make stupid decisions and not be a stupid person. Race is always a factor, and will always be a factor in this country.
Tomorrow: There's more than one side to every story
photo by Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune