victim – and let there be no mistake that is the only word
that fits here – is Marcus Dixon: a young man who was an ‘A’ student
in high school, a member of the National Honor Society, one
of the best defensive football players in the United States,
who scored above a 1200 on his SAT, and had signed a letter
of intent to attend Vanderbilt University as a student-athlete
in the most complete sense of the word. And yet today, Marcus
Dixon sits in a prison cell in Georgia, staring at a 10-year
sentence, because – and let there be no mistake about this
either – Marcus Dixon is black, and that makes all the difference.
a reversal of his sentence by the state Supreme Court, Dixon,
who lived in Rome, Georgia, about an hour northwest of Atlanta
(but farther away than that, one suspects, in cultural terms),
is going to spend the next decade of his life in prison for
having consensual sex with a white girl. That is not a misprint
and it is not a matter of opinion. That is ultimately why
he was expelled from school, why his scholarship was rescinded,
and why he may not see freedom until the age of 28.
Dixon was accused of raping the young woman in question,
a jury of nine whites and three blacks took all of 20 minutes
to dispense with the charge, as absurd as it obviously was.
The Rome District Attorney had brought the case to trial
based on the claim of the supposed victim, but was soundly
undone by witnesses who said the girl had admitted the sex
between she and Dixon had been consensual. Apparently she
feared that her father, a virulent racist, would kill both
Dixon and herself if he learned that she had willingly
slept with a black guy. So she changed her story, but not
before undercutting her own credibility, and not before re-enacting
one of the longest-standing Southern traditions on record:
that of a white female falsely claiming to have been raped
by a black man in order to save face with daddy.
a tradition that speaks to the way sexism and racism have
long interacted: white men in this case, maintaining their
own domination of white women by rigidly circumscribing the
sexual freedom of the latter in explicitly racial terms,
thereby hoping to keep blacks in line as well as their own
daughters, wives and sisters.
I said, it took 20 minutes to throw out the rape charge;
so at least that much has changed about the South. Needless
to say it would have taken fewer than that to lynch Marcus
Dixon 100 years ago - so good for us; we have become a little
more civilized it appears.
civilization, after all, is a relative concept. And when
expectations rise about how civilized people are supposed
to treat others, the fact that they proceed to be dashed
in a manner slightly less bloody than might once have been
the case is little comfort to the injured.
at the end of the day, the jury was still forced to convict
Dixon on the lesser-included charge of aggravated child molestation – yes,
child molestation – because at the time of the consensual
sex he had just turned 18 and the female in question was
2 years and 7 months his junior, making him eligible for
prosecution under Georgia’s Child Protection Act, which makes
any sex between such persons a felony.
Act’s author is adamant that his legislation was not intended
to punish willing sex between teenagers, but to the Rome
D.A. it matters little. Neither does he seem to find it worthy
of comment that no other teens in Georgia have ever been
prosecuted under this law, despite the almost certain likelihood
that somewhere, as I write this, the law is being broken
by several couples up and down the length of the Peach State,
including somewhere in his jurisdiction.
such a charge would never have been brought against a white
boy who had engaged in consensual sex with the same girl
is so obvious as to be totally unworthy of further discussion
or debate. Likewise, had Marcus Dixon had sex with a black
girl instead of one who is white, he would be sitting in
a dorm room a few minutes drive from my house right now,
and not in a prison cell.
Marcus Dixon violated one of the oldest taboos in the book,
which contrary to popular belief has not yet been expunged
from the heart of Dixie, or the larger national consciousness
in many ways. Marcus Dixon, not unlike, say, Strom Thurmond,
crossed the sexual color line. But very much unlike Ol’ Strom,
has the misfortune of being on the darker side of that line,
thereby lacking the power to keep his activities secret.
acquiring carnal knowledge of a representative of so-called
southern virtue, however willing said flower may have been,
Dixon crossed the line in a way almost guaranteed to bring
about his doom.
saddest fact of all being that he likely had no clue as to
the risk he was taking, no idea of the racial minefield onto
which he had stepped.
sadly brings us to an important if under-appreciated aspect
of this case; one that in part explains why Marcus Dixon
was likely not to fully understand, despite his genuine intelligence,
the danger of his tryst. Namely, Marcus was being raised
by white parents, or at least white guardians, who all but
legally adopted him at the age of eleven, thereby we are
told “saving” him from a dysfunctional home environment.
Ken and Peri Jones, for all their love, and for all their “stability” were
profoundly unprepared to raise a black male child in this
country. Many black parents aren’t prepared either – after
all, how can one ever be fully ready for all the traps and
snares that remain in the path of African Americans
even at this late date – but at least they know the drill.
less likely to be blindsided by the racism of white people,
having learned to expect it long ago.
least they aren’t silly enough to think that love is all it
takes to raise a child into a healthy adult.
least they would have warned Marcus; warned him that to be
black, and male, and 6’5” and 265 pounds, is to be the walking,
talking embodiment of white anxiety; it is to trigger every
known stereotype in the book: stereotypes that trump the
straight-A grades and render utterly moot the SAT score,
because they are the kinds of lies that are more powerful
than truth, merely because they are believed by people for
whom truth means little and power everything.
misunderstand. I’m not suggesting the Joneses were wrong
to take Marcus in. Nor am I saying that white parents should
never adopt or become guardians for black children or other
children of color. I am only saying that before white parents
decide to “rescue” black and brown children from homes they
consider dysfunctional (and which may well be), perhaps they
could take a moment to consider their own dysfunction: the
kind that doesn’t manifest itself in terms of poverty or
daily neighborhood violence perhaps, but which manifests
as ignorance, as a Pollyanna-like optimism about the power
of love alone, and an uncritical trust in America – the kind
most people of color long ago learned to temper with caution.
while Marcus Dixon is first and foremost a victim of an overzealous
prosecutor playing to white fears, and a racist father of
the girl with whom he had sex, he is also the victim of white
naiveté and good intentions.
the Joneses are good people, who on balance did a good thing
by taking Dixon in at a time when his mom seemed unprepared
to raise him, and his father wanted nothing to do with him.
They may well have saved his life; they surely improved it.
But by virtue of their own innocence, and I use that term
in only its most ironic sense here, they put this child at
risk in a way that his black family likely would not have.
seemed to honestly believe that people were more decent and
the society in which they lived more decent than they, or it,
really were and are. That kind of preciousness is bad enough
when parents allow it to blind them to the problems of their
white children, but at least then it isn’t likely to end in
those children’s destruction. However, for a black child to
be raised amidst that kind of cheery naiveté is to play fast
and loose with his or her life. At the very least it teeters
on the brink of neglect.
would be comical were it not so insidious. Consider how truly
amazed the Joneses seem to have been when Kenneth’s own mother
moved out of their home in disgust at their decision to take
Marcus in, and when his brother virtually disowned him because
of his dislike for any form of “racial mixing.”
how Peri couldn’t believe it when a longtime family friend
said, after the charges were made against Marcus, that raping
white girls was “just what niggers do,” and suggested that
the Joneses shouldn’t be surprised. “I didn’t know she felt
that way,” Peri lamented in a recent television interview.
this is stunning, even in a society whose majority is fairly
characterized as infantile in their understanding of race
and its meaning. I mean, let us really reflect for just a
second on the subtext of such wide-eyed amazement, indicating
as it does that at no point in their longstanding friendship
with this person had they apparently ever discussed matters
of race – a remarkable if unintentional admission of the
magnitude of white privilege, which privilege renders the
issue of race and racism utterly off the radar screens of
members of the dominant group.
Joneses and their white friends have been able to go through
their whole lives never thinking about race, in a way that
no black person could possibly do, and in a way that Marcus,
for his own protection needed desperately not to mimic. Yet
their assumption that race wasn’t an issue – for their friends,
for their community, for their own family – was completely
without foundation, as they now realize perhaps a bit too
maybe they still don’t fully realize it. Ken, for his part,
doesn’t appear ready to say that racism has anything to do
with Marcus’s predicament. When asked the question directly
he merely says “I have no idea of what is going on.” Truer
words have never been spoken. Nor, given the circumstances,
will we often hear words more heartbreaking.
behind that truth and heartbreak lay a lesson, if only we
are prepared to grasp it. A lesson for Ken and Peri Jones,
for white America more broadly, and specifically for all
the nice, open-minded, loving white parents out there who
are adopting or thinking of adopting children of color. Parents
who are rushing off to China, or Korea, or South America,
or the ‘hood closest to their own hometown, trying to fulfill
their own desires for a child, and also give a kid a good
home who otherwise might not have one.
is a lesson about how much they have to learn, and how little
they know at present.
they will now understand that to raise their black or brown
child the same way they raise their white children, if they
have them, or as they would raise a white child if they did,
is to set in motion a process that may well end in tragedy.
It is to ill-prepare those children of color for the real
world; a world in which they will too often not be treated
like their white siblings; a world in which they will too
often not be as warmly accepted by some family members or
neighbors, or teachers, or cops. And all because of race,
which thing is not a card dear friends, (oh, if only it were
that simple and insignificant) but rather the whole deck.
Don’t get it twisted.
not every black child raised by whites will fall victim to
the kind of institutional evil that has descended upon the
life of Marcus Dixon like fog on a cool Georgia morning.
Not every black child raised by white parents will face the
kind of viciousness to which he has been subjected. Many,
indeed, will thrive. But that is not the point.
most assuredly is the point is that so long as whites continue
to wallow in our ignorance, continue to believe in the principle
of color-blindness (which almost always means being blind
to the consequences of color even when those are profound),
continue to believe that our neighbors, our families, our
colleagues and our countrymen place higher priority on justice
than on the color of their skin, we and any persons of color
whose lives we touch will be at risk. So long as we are allowed
to exercise the privilege of cross-racial adoption without
proving that we know anything about racism and how that poison
might now destroy our newly-interracial home, we will be
setting the brown-skinned objects of our affection up for
please note that here I am not speaking of the importance
of something we famously call “cultural competence.” It is
most certainly not sufficient to show that one has read a
book about Kwanzaa, or bought some Miles Davis CDs, or learned
how to cook Hoppin’ John, or purchased some African artifacts,
the meaning of which one doesn’t even comprehend, or filled
one’s closet with Kente.
the culture white folks so desperately need to understand,
if we are going to have any constructive interactions with
black people, let alone raise them in our homes, is our
own; not the ways of black folks but the ways of white
folks, for it is the latter and not the former that will
pose the danger to our black and brown friends, colleagues,
or in this case, children.
the Joneses understood the ways of the white folks in charge
of the justice system, even on a local level, there is no
way Peri would have advised Marcus to be cooperative with
police and “tell them anything they wanted to know,” even
without an attorney in the room. Few black parents would
have told their black male child, suspected of raping a white
girl, to do such a thing, and precisely because they would
understand the intrinsic danger of the lamb trying to make
nice with the wolves who have encircled it.
it was in those early discussions that Dixon, fully aware
of the racism of his sex partner’s father, initially denied
even knowing the girl, let alone having sex with her. When
he later told the truth he was, in effect, snaring himself
in a lie, thereby making his story seem less credible to
a DA already likely predisposed to thinking the worst. It’s
a mistake he wouldn’t have had the chance to make had he
been taught a bit of self-defensive cynicism – the kind rarely
practiced by those who can afford the luxury of thinking
the system is fair and just, but which comes as second nature
to those who can’t.
the Joneses truly appreciated the ways of white folks, and
especially the ways in which sexual predator stereotypes
push so many buttons for so many whites still today, then
they could have given Marcus the kind of lessons at home
that he was not likely to receive in school.
all, for Marcus to receive that ‘A’ he got in history class,
he no doubt had to memorize a lot of dates: like 1776, and
1787, and 1863. The one he needed to know, however, was 1955.
in truth, Marcus Dixon’s life and those of other black men
like him have never hinged on whether they knew the correct
year of the American Revolution, the passage of the Constitution,
or even the Emancipation Proclamation. But his life (and
little did he know it) most definitely did hinge on whether
he knew the year when Emmett Till was murdered. And more
than the year, the reason for which his body was thrown off
a bridge, into the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a
75-pound cotton gin fan tied tightly around Till’s neck.
suspects that the Joneses never told Marcus Dixon about Emmett
Till, about how he was murdered because he said “bye baby” to
a white woman behind the counter of a store in the heart
of the Mississippi Reich. Perhaps they don’t know the story
themselves. Many white folks don’t.
needless to say Till’s story wasn’t likely to have been prominently
featured in any American history class that Dixon might have
taken. Not in Rome, Georgia, where probably more than most
places American history is a collection of triumphalist narratives
about the greatness of the country in which its students
Dixon’s ‘A’ in
the class signifies that he must have learned well the glories
of the nation into which he was born, and he must have regurgitated
those glories upon demand for his teachers. But like most
American high school students, Dixon was taught a lie. That
he is now paying for that lie with his freedom, if not his
life, is merely the latest obscenity in a state, in a region,
in an empire that views the lives of black people as expendable.
the lies and phony innocence stop, however, it is unlikely
to be the last.
Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org