The day after someone spray painted a racial slur on LeBron James’ property, I stood up in a federal courtroom in Charleston, asking a judge to have mercy on my youngest brother.
The judge nodded attentively and thanked my family for our words, then handed down a 24-year prison sentence, about as long as sentencing guidelines allowed.
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“Where is God when we need him most?” my mother whispered as the judge spoke.
A police officer detailed the terror he said my brother had inflicted on those he had committed an armed robbery against. They are still traumatized. He would know. The victims were his wife and in-laws.
My brother did what he was accused of doing. He tried to rob a business – sticking a gun to back of the head of an elderly man – just a few months after being associated with the death of a different man.
He must suffer the consequences of his actions.
That doesn’t mean race didn’t play a role, which brings me to the LeBron James incident. Commentator Jason Whitlock said what happened to the NBA star was little more than an inconvenience. Real racism only affects poor people, he argued. The poor of all races have it tougher.
It would have been easier to consider Whitlock’s view if he wasn’t so bombastic. He also seemed to miss James’s point that racism is still a fact of life for too many black people. He used his bully pulpit to raise important issues the way he has done for years.
Whitlock’s argument is particularly tin-eared given the documented increase in racial violence since November. Still, it’s true that better-off black people don’t face as much discrimination as poor blacks. It’s true that there are plenty of poor whites who have it tougher than well-off black Americans. It’s true that it is unwise to deny the racial progress we’ve made.
I’m a black man who grew up in the heart of the South and can say with certainty that having had to struggle with a severe stutter has been far – far – more challenging than growing up wearing dark skin. I also know that poverty was a major factor in why nearly half my brothers ended up in prison at some point in their lives. But so was race.
Similarly-situated poor white people were touched by the criminal justice system in ways that made their lives more difficult, but not to the extent and frequency black families like mine have been. Had my brother grown up in an equally poor white home, his odds of avoiding prison would have been much better. Why? Because racial discrimination helps determine where black Americans have been allowed to live, go to school, the kinds of jobs they could attain, and the number of second chances they receive. Each of those factors influences behavior. Researchers have found that rich black kids are more likely to go to prison than poor white kids.
Race doesn’t touch me as much as it did when I was growing up poor. If someone calls me n-----, they are more likely to cause themselves harm than bring me pain. My children have more advantages than many poor white kids. James’s kids have more still.
But neither the good decisions many in my family made, nor my rise out of poverty could keep me out of a courtroom begging a white judge to leave space for my black brother’s redemption.
And all of James’s riches couldn’t stop someone from calling him n----- and shouldn’t stop us for empathizing with him.
James is rich, not bulletproof.
And racial progress does not mean racial perfection.