A black body swinging lifeless from magnolia trees in the Deep South was not only expected, but accepted. Deemed unruly, dangerous, untrustworthy, violent and worthless, African American men, women and children were expendable chattel worth only the price of the rope.
A black body lying lifeless, face down on a subway platform in Oakland is not only expected, but accepted. Deemed unruly, dangerous, untrustworthy, violent and worthless, Oscar Grant was an African American criminal. To some, that meant that he deserved to die.
The similarities are chilling. From the plantation to the streets of America, law enforcement has declared open season on African American men, and none tells the tale more vividly than that of Oscar Grant.On Nov. 5, after Judge Robert Perry threw out a gun-enhancement charge, Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who "unintentionally" executed Grant, was sentenced to two years with time deducted.
Mehserle is expected to be up for parole in seven or eight months.
What message does that send to African American men in America who are held to the strictest standards of accountability even when evidence and motive are not substantial?
Racism is a cancerous tumor that has grown more pervasive as our judicial system evolves, and it is evident through each step of the process. From the arrest to the conviction to the sentencing, African Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, charged and given the harshest penalty allowed under law.
According to a March 2010 U.S. Sentencing Commission report, blacks in the federal system receive 10 percent longer sentences than similarly situated whites charged with the same crime. When it comes to mandatory sentences, "African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants.
More than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day.
A May 2008 report by the Human Rights Commission found that black citizens make up 37 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses, even though they only make up 12.4 percent of the American population.
A 2007 study by the Washington State Patrol revealed that African Americans are 70 percent more likely to be searched than white drivers.
All these studies have a common thread, showing with startling clarity the pattern of racial disparity in our judicial system, but what it doesn't attempt to explain is why that double standard exists.
Make no mistake about it, fear, prejudice and power are the reasons that our men are being targeted and murdered by police officers all over this country.
Fear is the reason that Darryll C. Price, Lorenzo Collins, Roger Owensby Jr., Jeffrey Irons and Timothy Thomas -- all unarmed black men -- were killed by police officers sworn to serve and protect.
Power is the reason that Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell's killers were acquitted of all charges.
Prejudice is the reason that six teenage boys in Jena, La., who endured nooses being hung from "all-white" trees at their high school and told it was "a harmless prank" and friends being threatened with a sawed-off shotgun, could possibly be faced with serving 100 years in jail, after fighting a white student at the height of the racial tension.
District Attorney Reed Walters said at the time, "I can end your life with the stroke of a pen."
Why use a pen when it is so much easier to use a gun?
The comparison has been made that Michael Vick received the same sentence for killing dogs that Johannes Mehserle received for murdering Oscar Grant.
What we now know is that Mehserle actually received less time, and while Vick also received probation for 3 years, with the courts sending the message that he is still untrustworthy and a potential danger to society, Mehserle will go home free and clear, safely to the bosom of family and community supporters who love him.
Accountability is a word that is thrown around very loosely when it pertains to the African-American community. Yes, we must be held accountable for the violence in our schools and neighborhoods, for the lack of parental involvement and for the high rate of teen pregnancy.
Yes, black people have been historically discriminated against in this country, and with 1.4 million African-American men currently unable to vote because of criminal records, our voices have been successfully muted.
While we must not stop at acknowledging past and current racism that impedes our success, we must also begin to determine how we will move beyond all of this for our survival.
Tragically, when we question if our judicial system will ever be forcibly held accountable for its blatant disregard for African-American life, the lines of communication seem to be irrevocably broken.
What happened during the early morning hours of New Year's Day was nothing short of a modern day lynching fueled by fear and prejudice and could have happened to any of our sons, regardless of their criminal record. The color of Mr. Grant's skin made killing him a viable option, and no excuse can alter that fact.
"My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered!'' Oscar Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, shouted outside the Los Angeles courtroom after Mehserle was sentenced.
Yes, he was, and if racial disparities and tensions stemming from ignorance, prejudice and entitlement continue to be the foundation of our judicial system, there will be more strange fruit littering the streets of our cities, and more Mothers and wives and sons and daughters left to mourn men who have bull-eyes on their backs as soon as they step out of the front door.
Watch our community talk about the Oscar Grant debacle here: