Tuesday, June 02, 2009

An Arresting Proposal

To follow up on a point we made briefly yesterday, it is our firm belief that the 'race' of evil doers on Pensacola Beach, or anywhere else for that matter, is largely irrelevant. It tells us nothing useful about the who's and why's of bad behavior or, more importantly, how to prevent it. To emphasize race in news reports, as the Pensacola News Journal did this year while covering the annual Mobile 'graduation' migration, distracts from the real causes of criminal behavior and further embeds racist stereotypes in the collective minds of local people.

One can't blame only the news media for the racist stereotypes that pervade America, of course. History demonstrates virtually everyone and every institution has been complicit. Racial stereotypes have been around forever; likely, they will take just as long in the future -- that is to say, forever -- to eradicate. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Newspapers, of course, can report only the facts they are given. When it comes to arrests on Pensacola Beach (and elsewhere, certainly), that means "name, age, address, occupation, and race," so a deputy sheriff at the beach substation informed us yesterday. We can't show you a copy of a typical arrest report because these days, it's all done via digitalized computer entries.

We happened across an old 19th century document the other day about a fellow we don't really have any interest in. The document itself, however, is a minor gem. It records how a man in his thirties began acting very strangely and eventually had to be committed to an insane asylum, where he pretty much disappeared from the rest of recorded history.

About all that one can know about him appears in the intake record use by the legal authorities. That called for much the same kind of information as a modern day Arrest Report does. In the ancient file, the information lists the man's name, home residence, and age ... and then this additional information, which in 1836 was considered relevant:
"Occupation: Gentleman. Status: Lunatic"
Substitute "black" or "white" for "Gentleman" and you may get what we're driving at. Lunatic is lunatic, to use the crude 19th century word for mental illness or defect. (Today, judging from available narrative descriptions of his behavior, the poor fellow probably would have been diagnosed as bi-polar.)

But "gentleman"? What does that tell us?

Quite a lot, it turns out. According to the 19th Century Dictionary, a "gentleman" was defined in the United States as a term "applied to men of education and of good breeding, of every occupation." It was used to describe black men "of education" as well as whites.

To know that this particular fellow became a 'lunatic' although he was well educated and of good breeding is to know considerably more about him than we know about the dozen or so Mobilians arrested on Pensacola Beach for causing a ruckus last month. While the educational grade in school one completed, or the specific schools attended, are hardly sufficient in themselves to allow for an informed judgment about any person, their behavioral traits, or proclivity to obey the law, it's certainly more useful than the cast of their skin.

Like many other northern transplants we've spoken with, we have found the cultural bias against education here in the Florida Panhandle to be worse than curious: it is socially and personally destructive. "Education is the key to success," goes the well-worn cliche written large on banners hanging over many graduation ceremonies this month. It is no less true for being threadbare from heavy use.

So, we will advance this modest proposal for the Escambia County sheriff's substation, and all other law enforcement agencies which create arrest records to be reported in the New Journal: Consider "race" an irrelevancy. We are all children of Lucy, anyway. In a world where everybody is of mixed ancestry and we all come in different shades, race doesn't help much in apprehending suspects, anyway. Law enforcement would be better off using the Crayola Color Chart for skin tone.

Instead, we propose that after arresting miscreants on Pensacola Beach, the policy should be to notate the last grade in school which an arrested suspect completed. Reporters inevitably will follow by including education-level attainments in their news reports:
"Harlan Hoehandle, 28, who was arrested Sunday evening for assault, is a tenth-grade drop-out who can barely read his own name. His cumulative G.P.A. at Public Middle School No. 4 in Mobile, Alabama, was D-minus."
It would explain a lot more about who these people are and why they behave the way they do. Much more than whether they show up as "white" or "black" on a computer form.

Over time, the message might sink in with the general population, too: "Education is the key to success. Lack of it likely will be a ticket to failure and prison."


Joe said...

To be fair, sometimes we DO hear about the education level of the perpetrators.

For example, when the person in question (I won't mention race, since it is irrelevant) has been caught driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, perhaps after causing a fatal car accident. Then we hear all about this person in the newspaper, how he's really a great student with a promising future, and how he's opened himself up to Jesus and sought forgiveness since that terrible event. Maybe the newspaper will even interview the perpetrator's relatives — perhaps a well-to-do businessman or a local politician — who will say what a shame it is to punish a good kid so harshly for one stupid mistake.

And in this whole article, not once does the newspaper mention the perpetrator's race.

Anonymous said...


Duralee said...

I really really really liked this blog. It really made me think!