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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"A Bunch Of Old Tires Is Worth More Than Billy Ray"

by digby

I'm always so interested when I hear that racism is dead in this country. When you look around, you certainly don't see the kind of institutional racism you saw when I was a kid. And young people today certainly do seem to be less racist than my generation --- popular culture is an amazing multicultural amalgam.

But, I also know that there is a certain kind of racist bully in American culture who is always present. And there are a lot of them out there. And when they do express their hate, a whole bunch of other people either turn away or come crawling out of the woodwork to defend them --- and that's when society's enduring bigotry comes right to the surface.

Here's a harrowing story in the Texas Monthly about one of those cases where some bullies decided to have some fun --- and a bucn of their friends and families either watched, turned away or defended them and in the process showed the great white underbelly of sickening American racism:

What the investigation unearthed was a story that no one in Linden wanted to believe: Billy Ray, who is mentally disabled, had been taken to a party, ridiculed, called racial slurs, knocked unconscious, and then dumped by the side of the road. Even the strangers who had come to his aid were not Good Samaritans but two of the perpetrators. Had the town’s white residents condemned what had happened to Billy Ray, the incident might have faded into memory; the crime pivoted on a single punch.

Instead, they closed ranks, and juries in both criminal trials that followed declined to give the defendants more than a slap on the wrist. Now Morris Dees, one of the nation’s preeminent civil rights lawyers, has taken up Billy Ray’s case, and Linden—a place most Texans have never heard of—will likely become the focus of national attention when the wrongful-injury lawsuit goes to trial this spring. Whether a new jury will see things differently depends on how Linden perceives its own role in this drama: as a community that must redeem itself or as a small town unfairly maligned by outsiders.

It was quite a party that night:

... When they looked to see who Wes had brought from town, they burst out laughing. One girl overheard twenty-year-old Colt Amox snicker, “Wes has a crazy nigger with him.”

Wes would later say that he had never intended for Billy Ray to become the night’s entertainment, but from the moment they arrived, the joke was on Billy Ray.Wes introduced him to his friends, making up nonsensical names for them as he went. Colt was “Bolt,” while others were “C’mon,” “We-pee,” and “Casey Macaroni.” Guileless, Billy Ray nodded and told each of them, “You can just call me Bill.” Wes turned on some music and handed Billy Ray a beer, and soon he had Billy Ray dancing to Lil’ Kim’s “Magic Stick.” Wes passed an imaginary stick back and forth to him while the group looked on and laughed. When the fire began to fade, Wes had him unload wood from the bed of his truck, and the errand became a game to see how much firewood he could pile on as he raced to and from the pickup. “Come on, Billy Ray, you can get more than that!” people shouted. Someone suggested that he reach into the fire and pull out one of the burning logs, and as Billy Ray bent down to comply, Wes stopped him. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.

The teasing had started to make some people uneasy, and before long, more than half the group decided to go home. Erica Hudson, a freshman at Tyler Junior College, told Wes as she was leaving, “It’s not right.”

Corey Hicks, who had recently gotten off work at the jail, drove up as the party was thinning out. He lived with Wes’ sister, with whom he had two children. When Corey arrived, he turned to a heavy-lidded eighteen-year-old named Dallas Stone. “Why did Wes bring this stupid nigger out here?” he asked.

Dallas shrugged. “For a joke,” he said.

Only six people remained at the party, including Billy Ray, and everyone was drinking heavily. As the night wore on, a pretty twenty-year-old student named Lacy Dorgan—the only woman left at the party—wandered off to throw up, and Wes followed her. The dome light inside her Mustang was on when she and Wes started having sex a few minutes later, and Corey watched them from a distance.

Bored and drunk, Corey, Colt, and Dallas nursed their beers while Billy Ray sat alone by the bonfire. Dallas would later claim that Corey said, “I wish someone would beat this nigger up.”

They were caught and some people were outraged. Othere were not:

Linden residents who braved the media did little to burnish the town’s image when they tried to downplay the crime, talking about the “good boys” involved who had been remiss only in letting things get “out of hand” and who deserved “a slap on the wrist.” Wilford Penny told the Chicago Tribune one month after stepping down as Linden’s mayor that the incident had been “an unfortunate and senseless thing” but that “the black boy was somewhere he shouldn’t have been.”

The "boy" was 42 years old.

And yet, after Corey, Wes, Colt, and Dallas were each arrested and charged that October with aggravated assault (Lacy, who cooperated with investigators, was not charged), they were seen, by some, to be victims as well. “These boys’ names are ruined for life,” Corey’s mother, Martha Howell, later told one reporter. “And [Billy Ray] is better off today than he’s ever been in his life. He roamed the streets, the family never knew where he was. Now in the nursing home he’s got someone to take care of him.”

Barbara Bush would agree, no doubt. She said similar things about all those "black boys" living in the Houston astrodome after the Hurricane:

"...so many of the people in the arena here, you
know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she
chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."

The DA put on a lousy case and the jury gave the men suspended sentences. (The judge stepped in and gave them a couple of months jail time):

When I met with the jury foreman, a warehouse manager named John Reed, he explained that some jurors had thought Billy Ray—who had taken the stand to give a few halting answers—had faked his symptoms and had practiced seeming slow and walking poorly. “As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s to blame,” Reed said. “Wes Owens shouldn’t have carried him out to that party, and Billy Ray should have known better than to go drink beer with a bunch of white boys.”

Now I realize that most people don't think this way in their every day lives. But there remains a strong, undercurrent of such thinking among a larger number of people than most of us realize. It is hidden and covert most of the time these days. In fact, most people who think this way don't think of themselves as racist. But when the chips are down, this is where the racist American lizard brain rises up to the surface and shows its ugly face.

African Americans say that racism still exists and whites across the political spectrum argue that it doesn't. They say it's either gone entirely (in the view of self-serving conservatives) or it's really a matter of class not some deeply buried tribal hatred that will take many, many eons to completely work itself out. Even the fact that the prison system is obscenely overrepresented by African Americans isn't even seen for what it is and is often excused as a result of poverty or education or some social pathology. It isn't.

“The verdicts sent a message: ‘It’s okay to treat a black man that way,’” Lue said when I visited him last fall. He showed me a small item he had clipped from the Cass County Sun, which he had glued to a piece of loose-leaf paper for safekeeping, about a black man named Burks Mack, who had illegally dumped some tires near Old Dump Road. For his crime, Mack had received six months in the county jail. “The only way I can figure it, a bunch of old tires is worth more than Billy Ray,” he said.

H/T to reader M.O.