Frayed Bootstraps in the Black Mecca

What the Judge and the Cos couldn't see in that all-black Atlanta courtroom.

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(AP Photo/W.A. Haarewood)

Early last year I was called for jury duty. I headed to the court building in downtown Atlanta, semi-grateful for the reprieve from admin meetings and hoping to get some grading done -- until I wandered into the wrong courtroom and was stunned by what I saw. The room was completely filled with black males, mostly teenagers; all were awaiting hearings for one criminal charge or another.

We hear in seemingly infinite detail about the over-incarceration of black men, it's one of those hard facts that pop up on that never-ending ticker-tape of bad racial news. But reading those numbers is not the same as looking at 40 or 50 young black men who are, if those statistics hold true, on their way to prison. I eventually found the right courtroom and actually got to leave after only an hour in the jury pool, but that scene troubled me for the rest of the day.

That vision came back to me earlier this month when I heard about Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington Sr. clearing the white people from his courtroom before delivering a stern lecture to the assemblage of young black defendants standing before him.

Arrington's message of responsibility and self-help dovetailed neatly with the themes of Bill Cosby's national "Call Outs" and that probably explains how the judge and the comic-turned-racial uplift preacher found themselves seated together in the auditorium of Benjamin E. Mays High School last Thursday night.On the surface, this could seem like more of Cosby's Booker T. Washington remix, but there were other dynamics at play. Atlanta is a city that has deliberately come to be seen as synonymous with black success, but the truth is that we are plagued by the same problems that afflict most American cities.

What sets us apart is that there is enough black success to essentially camouflage our 24.4 percent poverty rate and the fact over 40 percent of the children in the city are poor. Our schools perpetually rank among the worst in the country and the "Black Mecca" suffers from a crime rate that is among the highest for a city its size. The result is that Atlanta is two black cities: one in which people strive and another in which they struggle; one of subdivisions and another of projects. One that seems insulated from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and one that is defined by the opportunities that law yielded.

Those two cities share the common geography of Arrington's courtroom. He opened his event lamenting the fact that 95 percent of the young people who come before him are black. The other side of this story is that so are the police, the sheriffs, many of the lawyers and a good number of his fellow judges. Arrington himself is a highly regarded member of Atlanta's legal community and a bona fide Atlanta success story. He was raised by a domestic worker with less than a high school education and went on to found a successful legal practice and be elected to political office before being elevated to the bench. Onstage beside him were well over a dozen successful, well-educated African Americans whom he had mentored over the years.

Still, it wasn't hard to see where he was coming from. If my reaction to 30 seconds in the wrong courtroom was any measure, I doubt I could have lasted as long as he did before lashing out at that state of affairs.

Cosby and Arrington spent the better part of two hours lambasting the 400 teens in the audience about the culture of irresponsibility that leads to unplanned pregnancy, high dropout rates and incarceration. They shared head-spinning anecdotes of family breakdown and criminality. One juvenile court judge talked of her dealings with mothers who keep their children out of school because they're too lazy to get up in the morning and put them on the bus.

It was nearly impossible not to be disturbed by Arrington's telling of a young man murdered over a drug debt while his grandmother pleaded with the killer for enough time to go to the bank. Cosby roused the crowd when he demanded that people "stop begging the government to make up for your bad parenting." After an hour, the auditorium grew Baptist-church hot and the parents in the audience echoed the action on stage with their shouts to "tell it" and "speak the truth." Even beyond the heat and the call-and-response, the event had the feel of a racial revival of sorts, where the sins were not gospel violations but civic failings and regret.

"What kind of person," Cosby near-shouted, "tries to tell you that you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps." Toward the end of the event Cosby fulminated that "Negroes fought for their rights, Negroes marched" – part of his long-running indictment that "black people" seem to have lost all the good bequeathed to them by noble Negro ancestors.