I considered this question as I watched two major announcements involving young black men unfold hours from each other in what seemed like two separate worlds. First came the stunning yet predictable verdict of ‘involuntary manslaughter’ in the trial of former BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer, Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed 22 year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 as the victim lay face down on a subway platform in Oakland.
Then came the televised and much-anticipated decision of NBA star, LeBron James, to leave my home state of Ohio to pursue millions and a potential championship in sunny Miami.
The irony is inescapable. Two national events, sided-by-side, involving two young brothers, one dead, and one very much alive. On one side –given the quick and light verdict in the face of damning video footage–the life of Oscar Grant apparently wasn’t worth much at all. In fact, Nation of Islam minister, Keith Muhammad, questioned the value of the lives of black men at a televised press conference after the verdict was read.
On the other side, another young brother is being paid close to 100 million dollars to dribble an orange, rubber ball up and down a court.
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As many of you know –or have seen the Youtube videos taken by camera phones of this brutal and unnecessary shooting– Grant was face down on the ground and in a totally compromised position when Mehserle clearly looks at his gun –not the bright yellow Taser he said he meant to employ—before unlatching the revolver and firing point blank into Grant’s back.
As many of you also know, the man they call “King James” has countless videos on YouTube and beyond, firing shots from about the court and showcasing his extraordinary basketball skills.
Two very different scenarios — one extremely tragic, the other extremely lucrative.
Minister Muhammad also pointed out that Grant was just one of a growing number of unarmed black men shot by police in this country who have claimed to have ‘accidently reached for their gun instead of their Taser,’ or that they thought ‘the suspect was reaching for a weapon.’
It’s interesting how young white suspects taken in custody seldom, if ever, suffer the same fate.
And, like Minister Muhammad, it leaves us to consider the value of a black man’s life in our nation, one where he can be given millions to dribble and shoot a ball on camera in front of an international audience, or be gunned down while unarmed and lying face down on camera in front of an international audience.
Because, tragically –here in America– that’s the way the ball bounces.
Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com