“The first two steps toward uplifting young black men are simple: Stop killing them and stop locking them in prison for nonviolent offenses. Subsequent steps are harder, but no real progress can be made until the basic right to life and liberty is secured. If anything positive is to come of Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore rioting that ensued, let it be a new and clear-eyed focus on these fundamental issues of daily life for millions of Americans.”
—Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson, in an op-ed called “It’s time to seriously rethink ‘zero tolerance’ policing.”
Seldom have I read a column by a prominent pundit that so disqualified itself from serious consideration by the utter foolishness of its first sentence. Robinson has a right to say any silly thing he chooses, but as a columnist for a major newspaper, he has an obligation to use his extra-loud trumpet responsibly, because ideas have power, and really, really stupid ideas do terrible damage when supposedly smart and influential “experts” begin promoting them.
Robinson has a Pulitzer Prize, not that I have ever seen evidence of why. A paragraph like this one, however, ought to be grounds for revocation. It is Pulitzer Prize-winner malpractice. I know that Robinson is an African-American and a Democratic Party cheer-leader, right or wrong, and feels like he has to jump on board whatever pandering policy bandwagons the Democratic standard bearers start driving whether they make any sense or not. But there have to be limits. All right, let’s debate non-confinement punishments for drug offenses, since apparently a disproportional number of African-Americans find simply obeying laws unfairly challenging. It is certainly not healthy for any society to have an already under-performing demographic group suffering from a critical mass of life, career and family disruption.
To say, however, as Robinson does, that the “easy” part of the solution is to “stop locking them in prison for nonviolent offenses” is irresponsible beyond belief or excuse. Non-violent drug offenses? I’ll tolerate the debate. All non-violent offenses? Burglary, grand theft, forgery, drunk driving, fraud, identify theft…no prison time? What, then? Or do we just legalize those things?
I may be an old Gloomy Gus, but if a whole lot of crimes suddenly have no penalties attached to them, I have this funny, sinking feeling that there will be more crime, more victims, and even more black victims. Unless the idea is, and it may be, to just let black non-violent criminals, you know, the good kind of criminals, pray on white victims, and only arrest them when they pick on blacks. That’s rejecting “no-tolerance policing,” I guess: tolerate crimes against some, and not against others. By race! It’s the new American way!
After all, Robinson doesn’t argue that white criminals should be allowed to avoid prison for, say, passing bad checks, stealing cars, or hacking into banks. No, just blacks, that’s all Eugene cares about. That’s not what he means, you say? Then why didn’t the Pulitzer Prize-winner write what he meant, with those much-honored skills of his? Why didn’t Post editors insist, “Uh, Gene? The way this is written, it makes you sound like an idiot”?
I think he did write what he meant. Advocating a black crime tolerance-only policy is ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than his extortion-gets-no-prison-time advocacy. Later in the essay, Robinson specifies armed robbery as justifying prison, but that’s because guns equal violence. Steal a million bucks via cyber-crime? Crash the power grid? For that, in Eugene’s Safe World For Black Men But Not Anyone With Money, you get a stern talking to, a fine you can’t afford to pay, and nasty comments on your permanent record.
It’s all a matter of rights to Robinson. Since there’s a right to life, this means, to a Post op-ed writer who appears on network news programs, that cops can’t shoot, say, a 300 pound drug-addled kid who’s rushing at him. Since there’s a right to liberty, this means that black criminals are at liberty to rob, cheat, and ruin our lives as well as those of their neighbors. as long as they are nice and non-violent about it. (The right to pursue happiness means all the drugs young black men can handle, I guess.) OK, let’s be serious: white criminals will get to avoid prison too, whether Robinson cares about them or not, because letting black criminals run amuck means that white criminals will also have to be allowed to run amuck, thanks to that annoying Constitution thing.
But since Eugene Robinson thinks getting rid of the rule of law is good for blacks; the Constitution may well be next. That’s his next column.