Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Back Channels: Post-racial society? In Phila., not even close

Four cases illustrate the range of the problem. And alas, stupid people will always be with us.

Students and community members, above, walked up Broad Street to protest violence at South Philadelphia High School in December. In April, Police Sgt. Robert Ralston, left, shot himself, and blamed an invented black assailant.
Students and community members, above, walked up Broad Street to protest violence at South Philadelphia High School in December. In April, Police Sgt. Robert Ralston, left, shot himself, and blamed an invented black assailant.Read more

Post-racial America doesn't seem much different from the one we were living in before. Life is still unfair, and it's made worse by stupid people, racism, and the sometimes inexplicable actions of government. And, sadly, Philly has had a ringside seat lately to all of the above.

In Ring No. 1: City Police Sgt. Robert Ralston, who, on April 5, for unknown reasons, shot himself in the shoulder and blamed a black man with "cornrows." Police doubted his story from the start, but we didn't get the truth until Ralston was promised immunity from prosecution. I'd prefer a harsher penalty than pension benefits for life, but understand why the District Attorney's Office would opt for closure. With luck, Ralston will be billed for the 36-day investigation and manhunt.

Ring No. 2 features this month's sale of the infamous Huntingdon Valley swim club. Last June, the club reneged on its deal to open its pool to black and Latino children from a city day camp.

From the headlines generated, you would've thought a nest of Klansmen had lured minority kids into the suburban club just so they could be discriminated against. In fact, an effort to reach out - and increase revenue - was marred by the bad behavior of a few members. When challenged, the club's board panicked and unfairly took it out on the kids.

This case should have been settled amicably, but lawsuits were filed - including one from the Justice Department. The club declared bankruptcy last fall and this month's sale is the result.

In contrast, a vigorous investigation of South Philadelphia High School is needed. Long-standing problems there led to the December melee in which Asian students were attacked mostly by African Americans. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman initially blamed the fight on the city's violence problem, and the district has unconvincingly pushed the idea that this is not about race. Recently, the school's uncredentialed principal quit, and Ackerman has had to justify spending $689,000 on 126 security cameras for the school.

If South Philly High parents are to have any faith in the district, and trust that their children can be kept safe, the December fight and the treatment of Asian and immigrant students in general needs a thorough examination.

But is the Justice Department up to the job? I'd say no, based on how it handled the voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party on Election Day 2008.

Two Panthers were "deployed" in "military style uniforms" at a polling station on Fairmount Street, according to the original Justice Department complaint, and one of the men "brandished a deadly weapon" - a nightstick.

The complaint, initiated during the Bush administration, said the men "made statements containing racial threats and racial insults at both black and white individuals" and "made menacing and intimidating gestures, statements, and movements" toward those helping voters.

The two men, the national Panthers leader, and the party itself were named in the complaint. When they didn't respond, the case was won by default. At which point the Justice Department could have sent a message that voter intimidation by armed members of hate groups will not be tolerated.

But Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department dropped the case against all but the guy with the club. His punishment? He can't display a weapon at a polling place in Philadelphia through 2012. Hate groups must be shaking in their jackboots.

Members of Congress, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and others have tried to find out why a slam-dunk, already-won case with eyewitness and video evidence widely seen on YouTube was treated so lightly. Answers from the Justice Department in the last year have been vague or unsatisfactory.

Even at a hearing this month, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez evaded questions by claiming prosecutorial discretion: The case had been re-reviewed and the evidence deemed insufficient, and career attorneys subpoenaed by the commission would not be answering any questions.

I don't think the Justice Department has any sympathy for the Panthers, but why sidestep a chance to send an unequivocal message about voter intimidation to this hate group, the Klan, or anyone else on the lunatic fringe?

The Justice Department's mishandling of this case allows the Panthers to crow about it being "phony," and brought by a "racist lynch mob." Those remarks were cited by one of the lawyers involved in the case in his May 14 resignation letter.

A post-racial America won't make life fair. The stupid, the racist, and the inexplicable will always be with us. But if there ever is such a society, the cornerstone will be a belief by all Americans - falsely accused black men, assaulted Asian high school students, white and black voters - that equal justice, especially in matters of race, applies to all. Recent events close to home would suggest that's not the case.