"Barack Obama Kicks Puppies," or, The Color and Collar of Crime

Barack Obama holding up a Pittsburgh Steelers ...Image via WikipediaI have been wanting to do a piece on this for a while, but the holidays have kept me away (for which I apologize).  So as you all know, the Phildelphia Eagles gave Michael Vick a second chance, after he served time for his dog-fighting charges.  And President Obama praised the Eagles for having done so, in a phone call with the Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.  Vick wasn't the topic of the call, but he happened to have come up and so this happened.  And of course, anytime Barack Obama weighs into anything that has to do with the criminal justice system, the media drives itself up a wall.  Oh my god, Barack Obama kicks puppies!!!! essentially became the tagline.

No one should take lightly the crime Michael Vick committed.  He's banned from owning a dog ever again, and he should be.  But why is everyone surprised that the President spoke out - not necessarily for one man but for the integrity of the American justice system, where, at least technically, one should get a second chance after paying their debt to society?  A lot of animal rights groups' argument seems to be that for the Eagles, this was a decision about money and not second chances.

You don't say.  Show me what employer hires without a financial benefit to themselves.  If that were the standard of giving people a second chance - that it must be given for its own sake without any possible financial benefit to the employer - no one would ever get a second chance.  Most businesses in the this country, so far as I know, are not in the business of hiring people for the purely altruistic benefit of those they hire.

That is also not the point.  The motivation of one's employer does not diminish the idea that one is getting a second chance to become a productive member of society, which was the President's point, not Michael Vick per se:
A White House statement Tuesday cast Obama's comments as consistent with the president's view that "individuals who have paid for their crimes should have an opportunity to contribute to society again."
What a shocker.  A black president who grew up in a single-parent household and spent much of his life helping poor, blue-collar neighborhoods being devastated by our financial system believes that people in prison - who are disproportionately black - should get a second chance at life.  An American President believes that Americans in prison - us being a country that imprisons more people than any other - should get a second chance when those convicted of a crime are done paying their debt to society.  We rightly praise efforts to reintegrate former inmates into society.

Sure, those efforts don't often focus on ball players who make a ton of money.  But is the lesson that if you are a ball player and you made a ton of money (then went bankrupt), then tough luck, no second chances for you?

But let's talk about race, the type of crime and second chances for a minute here.  Would any of the media bruhaha have happened to the same degree were Barack Obama or Michael Vick - or even one of them - were white?  Would we be talking about it if a Wall Street tycoon convicted of the white collar corporate crimes were given their job back after they served their jail sentence?  Somehow, I doubt it.

I mean, hell, Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR still hold multiple federal contracts after being convicted of violating federal law, and you know, electrocuting our soldiers.  Halliburton's current CEO used to be an accountant with the corporate criminal accounting entity of Arthur Anderson, and was Dick Cheney's number two before Cheney ran for Vice President. Do you remember hearing about a firestorm in the establishment media about this?  I sure don't.

What about Scooter Libby?  After being convicted of obstruction of justice charges in a national security case, and having his sentence commuted by that modicum of law and order George W. Bush, the guy is jumping around from talk show to talk show.  Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor with a meth problem gets to start a new church and the media reports it as some sort of a redemptive, coming to Jesus moment (pun intended).  No such rehabilitation is possible for the black guy, I guess - not even for returning to the field of his career, within which he didn't commit the crimes (as opposed to all the other white and white collar crimes I just cited).  And if a black president speaks out about it, watch out!

What is going on here?  What are we doing?  The media storm and the so-called "controversy" is more than just a news story.  It is a commentary - a sad one - on the very kind of country that we live in.  We say we believe in rehabilitation.  We say we believe in people getting a second chance after they are done paying their debt to society for their crimes.  We prize equal justice under law.  But we close our eyes and stick our fingers into our ears when white collar crimes swim past us, and we vilify a black president in the media for praising the idea of a second chance for a black person who committed a crime - a crime heinous and gruesome, but no more offensive than electrocuting American soldiers or setting up an accounting scam that endangers our entire financial system.

We need to open our eyes.  We need to look at both the collar and the color of crime.  Because believe me, our society judges white collar crimes differently than the rest, and it judges African Americans differently in our criminal justice system - especially those caught committing a non-white collar crime.
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