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This is the story of a real American tragedy. The kind they make movies about.
The 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.
Barring 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 That is ultimately why he was expelled from school, why his scholarship was rescinded, and why he may not see freedom until the age of 28.
Though 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.
It’s 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.
Like 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.
Or maybe not.
Because 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.
And 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.
The 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.
That 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.
But 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.
By 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.
The 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.
Which 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.
But 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.
They’re less likely to be blindsided by the racism of white people, having learned to expect it long ago.
At least they aren’t silly enough to think that love is all it takes to raise a child into a healthy adult.
At 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.
Don’t 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.
For 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.
Yes, 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.
They 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.
It 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.”
Or 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.
Now 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.
The 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 late.
Or 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.
Yet 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.
It is a lesson about how much they have to learn, and how little they know at present.
Perhaps 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.
No, 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.
What 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 a fall.
And 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.
For 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.
Had 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.
Indeed, 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.
Had 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.
After 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.
For 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.
One 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.
And 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 live.
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.
Unless the lies and phony innocence stop, however, it is unlikely to be the last.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at email@example.com