Commentary: Race and class determine justice in America

Miami HeraldJune 24, 2011 

Consider two recent examples of American justice.

In 2009, after a night of bar hopping, a man named Ryan LeVin plowed his speeding Porsche into two British tourists in Fort Lauderdale, killing them. He fled the scene, lied to the cops, tried to pin the crime on someone else.

About three weeks ago, Tyell Morton, a kid from Rushville, Ind., sneaked into his school wearing a hooded sweat shirt and left a mysterious package in the girl's restroom. It turned out to be a blow-up doll.

LeVin was recently sentenced: he got house arrest at his oceanfront condo. Morton, who is 18, was jailed with a $30,000 bond and faces trial on charges that could put him away for eight years. Morton has no record. LeVin was on probation, has a string of traffic violations and a cocaine conviction. It ought not surprise you to learn that LeVin is white and fabulously wealthy, while Morton is black, and not.

Jaye Davis would reject the implications of that observation. She wrote a letter to the editor of the Rushville Republican that said in part, "I want and need someone to PLEASE tell me this case is not going to become a huge deal because of RACE! I feel very strongly that skin color had nothing to do with these charges ..."

Morton's father doesn't want it to be about race, either. Several times during a telephone conversation with me, Walter Nelson, a barber who owns a shop near Joliet, Ill., repeated that he does not want to "cloud" matters by framing his son's experience in racial terms.

Rushville, he explained, is a small, predominantly white town. Most of his son's homeboys are white. Many of those who contributed to pay his son's bond are also white. "My son's life is more important than some racial issue that people can't seem to get over. That's what I want to focus on, man."

Tyell, he said, is a good kid who brings home A's and B's and the occasional C. He dreams of going to college. He wants to be a doctor — or a video game tester.

"He's a teenager," his dad said. "He's a young man trying to find his way in life."

Nelson knows Tyell pulled a knuckleheaded stunt. But the overreaction to that stunt frustrates him. Once upon a time, a Tyell Morton might have suffered only a chewing out by the cops and his folks. But, said one official, things are different post-Columbine. Indeed, the initial charge was "terroristic mischief."

"They labeled my son as a terrorist," Nelson said. "They referenced Columbine with my son. Columbine, those guys had intent to harm. My son did not have any intent to harm anybody at all. That's what angers me." He wonders how six days spent in shackles with car thieves and drug dealers might scar his child.

And Jaye Davis is right, after a fashion. This is not an issue of race. It is an issue of race and class. To believe otherwise is to believe a Ryan LeVin would now be facing eight years in jail, and that requires a level of naivete inaccessible to me.

I asked Nelson if he thought his son would be in this jeopardy if he were wealthy and/or white instead of a black kid whose family had to pass the hat to raise the $3,000 the bondsman required. This man who doesn't want to cloud matters with side issues snorted a bitter laugh. "That question has been answered way before this happened to my son. Do I need to even answer that? Come on."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.

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