What the Judge and the Cos couldn’t see in that all-black Atlanta courtroom.
Frayed Bootstraps in the Black Mecca
By William Jelani Cobb
Early last year I was called for jury duty. I headed to the court building in downtown Atlanta, semi-grateful for the reprieve from admin meetings and hoping to get some grading done — until I wandered into the wrong courtroom andÂ was stunned by what I saw. The room was completely filled with black males, mostly teenagers; all were awaiting hearings for one criminal charge or another.
We hear in seemingly infinite detail about the over-incarceration of black men, it’s one of those hard facts that pop up on that never-ending ticker-tape of bad racial news. But reading those numbers is not the same as looking at 40 or 50 young black men who are, if those statistics hold true, on their way to prison. I eventually found the right courtroom and actually got to leave after only an hour in the jury pool, but that scene troubled me for the rest of the day.
That vision came backÂ to me earlier this month when I heard about Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington Sr. clearing the white people from his courtroom beforeÂ delivering a stern lecture to the assemblage of young black defendants standing before him.
Arrington’s message of responsibility and self-help dovetailed neatly with the themes of Bill Cosby’s national “Call Outs” and that probably explains how the judge and the comic-turned-racial uplift preacher found themselves seated together in the auditorium of Benjamin E. Mays High School last Thursday night.On the surface, this could seem like more of Cosby’s Booker T. Washington remix, but there were other dynamics at play. Atlanta is a city that has deliberately come to be seen as synonymous with black success, but the truth is that we are plagued by the same problems that afflict most American cities.
What sets us apart is that there is enough black success to essentially camouflage our 24.4 percent poverty rate and the fact over 40 percent of the children in the city are poor. Our schools perpetually rank among the worst in the country and the “Black Mecca” suffers from a crime rate that is among the highest for a city its size. The result is that Atlanta is two black cities: one in which people strive and another in which they struggle; one of subdivisions and another of projects. One that seems insulated from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and one that is defined by the opportunities that law yielded.