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Thoughts On Race and Kilpatrick's Sentence

“The entire situation is tragic. I am not gloating, and I am not celebrating. Kilpatrick's actions and conduct necessitated this result. Judge Groner's sentence was appropriate under the circumstances.”

— Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy on the sentencing of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to a maximum of 5 years in prison

I couldn't agree more.

And I think this a sentiment shared by a lot of people around the city, particularly black folks — despite the fact that some myopic narratives want to portray large numbers of Detroiters as backing Kilpatrick, as seeing his sentence as racially driven. For instance, I'm reading now that Kilpatrick's PR flack Mike Paul, apparently the Conrad Murray of "reputation doctors," says that Judge Groner's sentence implies "a throw back to South Africa during the days of apartheid. No wonder it appears many whites in the suburbs of Detroit dislike the former Mayor, as many blacks in Detroit still support him and pray for him." A quick scan of the internets also suggests that there  are plenty of white folks who buy this line, who seem to think there really are armies of black Detroiters denouncing the sentence as racist and still standing by the ex-mayor.

In both instances, that perception is way overblown.

Yeah, I know the former mayor still has his supporters, and in a town this religious, somebody's grandmother will always have a prayer for him. But when I've talked about race, Kilpatrick and the criminal justice system with black Detroiters I'm familiar with, especially politically connected black people, what I hear isn't sympathy or a feeling that Kilpatrick was railroaded. Most people I know think that, compared to the average brother on probation, Kilpatrick actually was treated pretty well by the courts. And to them, that treatment was more about his pedigree.

That said, though, I have sensed another sentiment at play in my conversations, one that does have a clear racial component heightened by this case. Even among black people who thought the mayor deserved serious  jail time -- or perhaps especially among this crowd  -- the move was also a bitter reminder that this kind of justice usually isn't meted out fairly, isn't spread across the board to the many other deserving local and national officials who seem to openly dismiss the rule of law.

Racism isn't when a Kwame Kilpatrick goes to prison, the sentiment suggest. Rather, it's when white men and women who are just as influential as any Detroit mayor, if not more so — powerbrokers who steal and lie and cheat like they breathe; who endanger lives, livelihood and whole industries with their criminal machinations — don't.

In Detroit, most black people I know conflate race with political crime and punishment not because of anything to do with Kilpatrick, but when considering how so many other officials seem to avoid deserved legal smackdowns. How many times can, say, a former vice-president admit that he ordered illegal torture before he's treated like someone who violated the law? How many times can county officials get caught driving drunk down metro Detroit thoroughfares, and putting real lives at risk, before someone makes space for them in jail instead of having the cops drive them home safely? How many other local officials get their beaks all kinds of wet doing dirty deals in the course of the expansion of highways and airports and other key pieces of infrastructure?

Why, I hear people ask, don't far more crooked white politicians get the same time as crooked black ones -- or any time at all?

And it's certainly not just among the upper classes where the sense of disparity is palpable. Consider, for instance, a recent government study that showed that blacks are routinely given longer prison sentences than whites for similar crimes. Or the ongoing research that highlights continued racial disparities in how justice is handed out in drug sentences.

To be infuriated by these inequities doesn't make you a Kilpatrick groupie. It makes you humane.

My short "race man" argument against the Mike Pauls of the world, those who want to defend Kilpatrick as a black man under racist assault by the courts, is that the guy undermined a majority-black city — so pardon me if I can't rustle up any solidarity for that. Likewise, most black Detroiters I talk with say they clearly understand that Kilpatrick needs to go to prison -- but they also feel that, were it not for the insidious persistence of race privilege at any number of social and political levels, black politicians like him would have plenty of company.

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