The incident itself was tragic enough, but what ensued was truly awful.
On June 16, a black teenager named Raynard Johnson was found hanging from a tree in his front yard, his body still warm, a belt tied around his neck. His parents said they believed the 17-year-old had been lynched, and a firestorm exploded.
The evidence for lynching? The parents said they didnt recognize the belt as one of their sons; they thought they had heard dogs barking around the house before the incident; and Raynard was an honor student who seemed happy. Most importantly, he was dating or was friends with a couple of white girls, about which some locals had allegedly complained. And this was Mississippi.
For the media and activists, that was enough.
Princess Diana was never as popular in Britain as depicting Americans as violent, racist thugs.
The Lexis-Nexis database records over 170 media mentions with the terms "Raynard Johnson" and "lynch," a huge number covering the antics of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In Britain, where tut-tutting over American violence is still very popular, there appeared such headlines as "Fear of Lynch Mob Returns to the South" (Independent of London).
Given short shrift was the evidence against foul play. Teen suicide is, sadly, all too common. About 3,700 males aged 15 to 24 commit suicides in the U.S. each year, and, according to the CDC, the suicide rate for blacks aged 15 to 19 more than doubled from 1980 to 1998.
"More teenagers and young adults [die] from suicide than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, lung disease — in essence, all natural causes combined," according to Surgeon General David Satcher. Seemingly happy and extremely intelligent kids and are often among them, sometimes killing themselves over something as trivial as getting a "B" on a report card.
There were no suspects and no notes after Johnsons death, such as would be expected from violence intended as a warning. Finally, two autopsies, including one the family commissioned, found no evidence of a struggle. "He had no marks on him, no other injuries. There were no broken bones, no gunshot wounds, no stab wounds, and he was not beaten up," County Coroner Norma Williamson affirmed.
No matter. Jesse Jackson went to Mississippi and cried, "Some man or men did this evil," then led a thousand marchers chanting, "Stop the lynching now; stop killing our children." (Thats "children," plural.) The Rev. Al Sharpton bellowed outrage. Attorney general Janet Reno met with both Jackson and the Johnson family, and the FBI was brought in. The NAACP and activist groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center also weighed in.
Now the only missing part of the suicide thesis has been revealed: the motive. The local district attorney reports that one of the white girls had told police she had broken up with Johnson right before his death. The police want to take the teens computer to see if he wrote a suicide note; the family wont let them or the FBI have it.
No doubt all those involved in this latest hate-crime hype would like it to be quickly forgotten. Dont let that happen.
Maybe the activists and media havent noticed, but black-white dating and marriage have become commonplace. According to the Census Bureau, in 1997 there were 311,000 black-white married couples, more than six times as many as in 1960. Two-thirds of the time, its the husband whos black. One is a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The parents feelings are perfectly understandable. Its horrible to think your child committed suicide and you didnt see it coming. But nobody else has such an excuse. Rather, they seized on lynching to advance their own causes.
One is simple media sensationalism. Precisely because lynchings have become so rare (though some groups go through amazing statistical gymnastics to pretend otherwise), they make big news. In short: Lynchings sell. Dont have a real one? Then the mere suspicion of one will do nicely.
But it also fits the media mythology of a nation crawling with Ku Klux Klan members. Lest we forget, for half of 1996 the entire media blared about what the New York Times labeled an "Epidemic of Terror," the alleged systematic burning of Southern black churches. (See my article, "A Church Arson Epidemic? Its Smoke and Mirrors," Wall Street Journal, July 8, 1996.)
Then, as now, it didnt just turn out the evidence was false; there never was real evidence to begin with. There were merely isolated incidents converted into a bizarre connect-the-dots game, plus lots of fire-stoking by individuals, activist groups, and politicians. Jesse Jackson called it a "a kind of anti-black mania, a kind of white riot," while President Clinton compared the arsons to the ethnically-motivated murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.
Fifteen years earlier, during a long string of child and youth murders in Atlanta, Jackson declared: "Its open season on black people," the result of a "cultural conspiracy."
Malcolm Xs sister, Ella Collins, said the murders were the "work of white scientists" who were "performing experiments to discover what made the black man so superior he was able to withstand the abuses of 400 years."
Ultimately one person, Wayne Williams, was convicted for murdering two of the victims and linked to the killing of 29 others. Williams is black. Yet as this article appears, Showtime is running its movie Whos Killing Atlantas Children, barely mentioning Williams but rather implicating, yes, a KKK-led conspiracy.
They may want you, but
nobody wants them.
Bigot-spotting is big business in this country. Without it, people like Jesse Jackson would be as well known as Herbert Hoovers vice president. It brings fame to individuals, contributions to groups, and votes to politicians.
As Senator Joseph McCarthy needed Communists in the State Department, Jackson needs to keep finding a bigot behind every bush and under every bed.
None of which is to say that racism isnt both real and a problem. But leveling charges at the least instigation merely trivializes it and causes needless fear and antagonism.
Meanwhile, accusations of racism continue to be a one-way street.
On April 19, eight-year-old Kevin Shifflett of Alexandria, Virginia, was murdered in broad daylight by a black man. At least one witness says he told police the killer shouted something about hating white people as he slashed the childs throat. Investigators, however, have refused to release this information. We do know the prime suspect left a note in his hotel room declaring "Kill them raceess whiate kidds anyway (sic)."
There has been little non-local news coverage of the Shifflett murder, and — needless to say — no public hand-wringing, no moralizing, and no blaming of anybody other than the killer himself. Alexandria police actually asked the FBI to keep out.
While the Washington Times reported, "Some law enforcement officers in the area agreed that withholding the racial information may have hurt the investigation," a city-council member justified the action. "What they did was proper," she said, "We already live in a racially charged world." Indeed.
Jesse Jackson has not yet commented.
What happened to young Raynard Johnson should have been left a personal tragedy; instead it became an international incident. The disgrace isnt that America is still a land of bigots, but that so many in power positions continue, without evidence, to insist it is.