published Monday, January 16th, 2012

Cook: Race, truth and MLK

I believe Dr. Martin Luther King was a founding father of another sort -- like a president of the American conscience -- who begged us to declare independence from the cruel kings of racism, poverty and violence.

Yet we're still bound up. Still fettered to those cruel kings. That new America -- one based on brother and sisterhood, justice and peacemaking -- has yet to be fully born.

I wonder if it ever will.

Dr. King taught that telling the truth with love is our vehicle, the grand train that helps us through the labor pains of creating that more perfect union. Lies and fiction won't do it.

What if, this year, we tried to be more honest with each other? To tell the truth together?

I'll start.

One night last week, I was downtown, a few blocks from M.L. King Boulevard. The sun had set. I was on a somewhat-dark street corner, talking with a friend who is white, like me.

He and I were talking politics when I spotted a group of four or five teenagers walking our way on our side of the sidewalk. A few had sweatshirt hoods pulled up over their heads. They were males.

And black.

I tensed up.

Because I immediately associated them with criminals.

And I would not have done that had they been white.

I'm not proud of that. At all. But it's true.

Yes, most of the recent gun violence in Chattanooga comes at the hands of black teens. But it's massively unfair for the racial narrative within my white subconscious to automatically criminalize those black teenagers.

No one will ever prejudge my own children simply because other white folks act in criminal ways.

It seems like a double standard.

Consider this. Earlier this year, County Commissioner Fred Skillern -- who is white -- joked around with three other political leaders by asking, "Why don't we go back to the Constitution when the only voters were white male property owners?"

Just a little joke. Right?

Now imagine if County Commissioner Warren Mackey -- who is black -- had jokingly told three elected officials that he longed for the Black Panther days when black folks took matters into their own hands ... by any means necessary.

How would Chattanooga respond to that?

Consider the larger picture. In 2010, black males in Tennessee represented nearly half of our state's prison population, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Yet black Tennesseans were only 17 percent of our state's total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

No one is forced to commit a crime. I believe personal responsibility always comes first. But I also see what has been called "a prison pipeline," a racially biased system that seems to funnel black teens -- at worst -- into prison or -- at best -- into a society where so much health is snuffed out.

Higher rates of disease. Shorter life expectancy. Higher homicide rates. Higher infant mortality. Lower median income. Lower levels of personal wealth. Based on data from 2001-03, black Tennesseans live in vast disproportion to their white neighbors.

Why such disproportion? How responsible am I for that? Do I as a white man benefit from such disadvantage? How much of the solution is the sole responsibility of the black community?

And how presumptuous and patronizing of me to simply write that sentence, to reduce thousands of Chattanooga into a tidy term -- "the black community."

I don't want to look at anyone -- black, brown or white -- and immediately criminalize him or her solely on skin color.

Nor do I want -- in ways known and unknown -- to help contribute to a larger system that suggests those four black teenagers are walking down a road less just or promising than the road I travel.

I don't think you do either. So, what do we do?

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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yaffay said...

The lack of community outrage concerning Mr. Skillern's racist comments says a great deal about those that continue to elect him to public office.

January 16, 2012 at 9:42 a.m.
Lr103 said...

Typical of you, J. Ross, to take what Jackson said out of context. He was referring to the media bombarment of negative images of blacks played over and over. Takes this scenario: Police witness two young males on opposite sides of the street running. One has dreadlocks, baggy pants and is sporting a hoodie. He's black. The other,white male, has spike/purplish hair, black gothic look, long dark trench coat attire and has what appears to be a bloodied head in his hand and a knife. Which individual do you think the police will stop? The baggy pants/dreadlock black guy in a hoodie? Or the spike/purple haired male in gothic attire, dark trench coat with what appears to be a bloodied head and knife in his hand? My instinct tells me the cop will likely ignore the white male and go after the black one.

That's what Jesse was referring to. How we have been brainwashed into what a criminal looks like based on ethnicity.

January 16, 2012 at 6:57 p.m.
Lr103 said...

Actually, J. Ross, you righties have UZ lefties beat on that one. Don't like challenges to your purposeful out of context comments? Then post the truth. The whole truth. Guess that's something you righties aren't capable of.

January 16, 2012 at 8:01 p.m.
EmB said...

Because of articles like this, I continue to subscribe to the Times Free Press. This should make all of us more conscious of our prejudices. I thank you, Mr. Cook, for stating the truth and stating it well.

January 17, 2012 at 12:50 p.m.
tipper said...

JonRoss: You are not being interpreted, you are being corrected. Big difference.

January 17, 2012 at 2:17 p.m.
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