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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Joys of Being Black

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If it’s such an overwhelming advantage to be a black man running for president of the United States, it’s amazing that the first 43 have been white. No doubt Geraldine Ferraro, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate, expects the next 43 presidents to be African American now that she has declared that being a black male carries such tremendous benefits in American politics.

Still, there are a just a few, tiny disadvantages that go along with all the bountiful privileges bestowed upon African-American males in our society. You know, tiny drawbacks hardly worth mentioning, such as the fact that one out of every three black males born today can expect to be incarcerated. And, in our cities, more than half of black males won’t finish high school and as many as 70% will be unemployed.

Aside from that, being a black male in America is a day at the beach, especially for those running for public office. Well, once again, there are a few, minor disadvantages. It almost seems impolite to mention them, given all the overwhelming advantages African-American males enjoy. But there’s the fact that, here in Wisconsin, no African-American judge can ever climb so high as to avoid having his photograph flashed across the state, equating him with a child molester.

That is the experience of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, the state’s first—and only—African American to sit on its highest court. Before Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman began running against Butler, there were fears that outside groups without any connections to the two candidates might run irresponsible ads smearing the candidates.

Now it turns out that Gableman’s own ads have trumped all outside commercials when it comes to trying to mislead the voters with inflammatory, racist advertising. The ad itself should tell voters all they need to know about the honesty and character of Gableman, an obscure northern Wisconsin judge attempting to unseat Butler. The ad suggests that Butler, as a Supreme Court justice, single-handedly freed a child molester from prison and, as a result, the heinous monster raped another child.

As brazenly offensive as that allegation is—not to mention the fact that it is completely untrue—even more offensive is the racial imagery employed in the ad. A split screen juxtaposes a smiling black-andwhite photo of Butler with a police mug shot of convicted child molester Reuben LeeMitchell.

The effect is like a Klan poster: Guess which black man is the child molester and which one is the Supreme Court justice.

Insulting Our Intelligence

To any intelligent voter, Gableman’s ad raises all sorts of factual questions. What was the rest of the Supreme Court doing while Butler was setting free a child molester? Why haven’t we ever heard about this outrageous case before? Gableman clearly is hoping that not very many voters will be intelligent. He’s counting on the visceral reaction of voters against Butler after he has been tarred as someone who aids and abets child molestation. The fewer questions, the better—because the primary reason we have never heard about this case is that it never happened.

It is true that as a public defender a quarter of a century ago Butler was assigned to handle an appeal of Mitchell’s conviction. It is also true that Butler won a new trial for Mitchell. But Mitchell never went free as a result. In fact, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the appeals court decision and reinstated Mitchell’s conviction. Mitchell served his entire, required sentence. Some years later, after serving his sentence, Mitchell committed another crime involving a 14-year-old runaway. There was nothing Butler, Gableman, the Wisconsin Supreme Court or anybody else could have done about that.

Besides dishonestly twisting the facts, Gableman’s ad implies that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has something to do with sentencing child molesters. “Can Wisconsin families feel safe with Louis Butler on the Supreme Court?” Gableman’s ad asks.

The obvious answer to that question, by the way, is yes. The Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t sentence offenders. It returns cases to lower courts for retrial if those courts have failed to follow the law. But Wisconsin families wouldn’t have to worry even if the Supreme Court did sentencing.

When Butler was a judge in Milwaukee County, he had a reputation for tough sentences. That’s why the Milwaukee Police Association has endorsed him. No matter how high African Americans may rise in this country—whether they’re running for the presidency or sitting on the Wisconsin Supreme Court—they can never seem to rise above scurrilous racial smears.

If they aren’t suspected of being secret Muslim terrorists, they’re accused of being friends of child molesters. It’s a good thing African Americans have all those other advantages in politics Geraldine Ferraro was talking about. What were those again?

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.