When a White Woman Accuses a Black Man
He was a writer, a man I’ll call Jonathan. Jonathan was in writing group with me one hour before he was accused of having snatched a purse from a woman on the street, a felony even though the purse had less than $10 in it. I told the investigators that Jonathan had just left writing group when this crime supposedly occurred; there was no way he could have—or ever would have—robbed someone.
They didn’t care. Three months after the purse-snatching, a white woman had seen Jonathan walking down the street and flagged down a cop when she “realized” this was the Black man who had robbed her. She then identified him in a line-up as the man she’d decided had robbed her. I will never forget the white public defender—remember, this is the man whose job is to defend Jonathan —standing in the bowels of 201 Poplar looking at me then looking at Jonathan and saying, “Look how distinctive he is. How could the victim have messed up the ID?”
When the time came for the “victim” to identify Jonathan in court, Jonathan was the only Black male LEFT IN THE COURTROOM after the white judge let every other matter go forward—pushing aside Jonathan’s case, skipping it again and again, until the courtroom had cleared out— and he finally asked the “victim” if the man who robbed her was in the courtroom. The judge, remember, who is supposed to be the impartial trier of fact not the creator of a farce.
As Jonathan’s case neared trial, his new Black public defender actually READ THE DAMN FILE and realized the description the “victim” gave to the police immediately after the purse snatching bore no relation to Jonathan. Not skin tone, not height, not scars and facial characteristics. Not body build, not hairstyle. Nothing. But he was a Black male.
At the time I didn’t understand why, but the new public defender kept asking me if Jonathan had changed his look—I laughed at the idea of Jonathan not looking like Jonathan and gave him photos I had from the time of the crime. Two days before trial, thanks to this Black public defender who actually defended Jonathan, the DA dropped the case, but not after Jonathan had spent weeks in jail, months confined at a mental health institute for fitness for trial, and a year under house arrest.
The system, the public defender explained, was very reluctant to basically tell a white woman “victim” that she didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about.
That is how the system—the white Public Defender who is supposed to defend, the white judge who is supposed to preside impartially, the investigators who are supposed to investigate, and the white DA who is supposed to bring charges only when the evidence warrants—ties itself in knots spending money, time, and resources to support a white woman when she identifies a Black man as a criminal.
If you are a white woman and felt outrage building as you read this, can you join me in asking the questions I’ve been asking myself:
* how have I benefited from this system designed to protect me?
* what is very particular about me that God can use as an authentic response to change a system currently being used by my group to do harm? (hints are found in the components of this post (my legal training, years spent with those experiencing homelessness, my writing, my focus on women) and that I framed the question in terms of God)
* what do I need to learn to add to my existing knowledge of the problem before I act on the problem?
* given my particulars and what I’ve learned, where can I best combine my knowledge, talents, and emotions to most effectively focus my efforts within this vast, unfair system?
* what am I doing to dismantle the part of my brain that claims because I am a woman and have suffered all my life at the hands of a male-favoring society, that is enough?
* how am I helping those who are not white women protected by the justice system and are suffering today as these wounds continue to rupture?
I hope you will let me know in the comments any thoughts you have—what questions you’re grappling with, how I can ask better questions, helpful tools you’ve used (e.g., write an autobiography of how I have benefited from the system, draft a timeline of my relationship with the system and how it has changed). We can all inspire each other. Which we must do. Because if you are white and felt any outrage, frustration, and sorrow reading this post, multiply it by one hundred,
by one thousand,
by one million,
and we still won’t come close to what African Americans are feeling right now in America.
. This really impressed me, and I know from other sources that this account is true and other similar accounts are likewise true. Your characterization of the justice system is accurate and distressing. This has been the case for a very long time, and we white people have let it stand. Now your voice rings out like a carion call. We needed to hear what you say and we need to answer .your call.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Thank you, Joe. Your opinion means a lot to me. You have done the work in this area, and I appreciate your support. TY!
Marie A Bailey
What a brutal story. Grateful that Jonathan didn’t lose his life in the process but the humiliation he must have experienced at the hands of a flawed system. Eyewitnesses are often the worst source of evidence, unless, apparently, you’re a black man accused of a crime, no matter how petty. What really breaks my heart is that no one takes racism seriously until someone dies, and often not even then. Abuses like Jonathan’s Kafkaesque-experience are often shrugged off as anomalies or “just life” for the humble. Thank God for cellphone cameras.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Oh, yes—thank you, Jesus, for cellphones. And you’re right—so much damage takes place far shy of death. I always thought this “witness” recognized him not from the crime but from having seen him on that route often, but she mashed them together in her brain. It should have been caught immediately by those chasing to prosecute it. I filed multiple requests for information, but the original police report wasn’t public and never surfaced until the new PD saw it. The heartbreaking thing is that he always gave the police a WIDE berth because life had taught him to. So to be walking down the sidewalk minding his own business and wind up in this surreal trap was infuriating, as was my inability to fix it. And I can tell you—the system tried its damndest to keep him entrapped.
“what is very particular about me that God can use as an authentic response to change a system currently being used by my group to do harm?” This is a great question for your readers’ to contemplate. For me, the novel I’m WRITING right now is about a biracial couple in Mississippi, where I grew up. It starts in the 1960s on the Ole Miss campus, spends many years in Memphis, and ends at current time back in Mississippi. I am doing lots of research and soul-searching to try to get this right, and I hope that when it is birthed into the world, the world will already be a better place because of people like you. Thank you for this wonderful post.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
I remember that story from the collection, right? Nice you are expanding it. Researching MS history can be heartbreaking–I went on a self-education campaign about MS 20 yrs ago when I moved away from Jackson. Literal and psychological distance allowed it, I guess. I remember my first outrage was when I realized every public building (except for the McCoy Federal Bldg) was named for a racist. Who did I think they were named for? It got much worse than that, of course. Oh, well. We live and grow. I hope the project goes wonderfully.