THE BLOG

The Race Card and Pernicious Prosecutions

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

If there were any doubt before, the election of Durham District
Attorney Mike Nifong proves conclusively that pandering works, and
that it works even better if you can exploit racial divisions to harm
rather than heal. Nifong, of course is the prosecutor who has been
hounding the Duke University lacrosse team despite mounting evidence
that the case is actually another Tawana Brawley debacle. Ignoring
an airtight alibi, persuasive photographic and documentary evidence
and the absence of DNA, Nifong has continued to pursue a case he
should have dropped before the complainant's criminal record, alcohol
issues and prior claims of being gang-raped came to light. He didn't
of course, because in a three way election in a community that is
nearly 40 percent African American, he decided that hounding
defendants was politically expedient. Sadly, it seems he was right
about that.

The truth is that the Duke case, better than most any other one in
recent memory illustrates in stark relief how political the criminal
justice system has become and how the politics of prosecution have
supplanted the quest for justice in courts around the country. It's
sad, of course, that it takes the misalliance of innocent privileged
white kids to be lined up against a shaky african american
complainant to make this case so appealing to the general public.
But it would be a terrible tragedy if the public went away without
understanding the larger lesson here: that while dramatic, this
isn't an isolated incident--it is standard operating procedure in a
system whose ire is normally pointed at poor black kids, not
privileged white ones. The Duke case merely illustrates just how
hard it is for anyone--black or white to get a fair shake in the
criminal justice system, once an accusation has been made.

Of course, because of the racial makeup of the case, there will be a
tendency to see this as an isolated case to be understood in it's own
term rather than as an object lesson in criminal justice. White
people would be wise to look beyond the guilt or innocence of these
defendants and understand just how often poor black defendants are
treated just as badly or worse in our system of justice, and black
people might take a moment to question the wisdom of lining up
behind the same prosecutors who are driving a racially unbalanced
criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates their
children.