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Susan Smith's Bitter Legacy : Race: Prejudice continues to fuel misconceptions about crime, criminals and victims.

November 11, 1994|CYNTHIA TUCKER | Cynthia Tucker is editorial-page editor of the Atlanta Constitution

For years to come, the name Susan Smith will be shorthand for deteriorating family structures, the loss of innocence in small-town America, infanticide. And, despite her family's forthright apology for her lie, she will also be a symbol of our failure as a nation--a failure that belongs to all of us, white or black or brown--to bring clearheadedness to the subject of crime and race.

The young Union, S.C., mother had favorable winds to carry her tale of a black man who stole her car and her children. Her story struck a chord across America, in households black and white. The evening news has left many Americans with the impression that black men routinely steal cars at gunpoint, even if small children are passengers. When Smith's story unraveled, that, too, struck a chord, but only in black households. Black experience has taught that black men can be accused of--sometimes executed for--crimes they did not commit. Her lie reinforced a widespread belief among blacks that whites find blacks a convenient scapegoat for all problems.

With so many misconceptions held by Americans of all colors about crime and the criminal-justice system, it is no wonder that the nation has had little success at curbing violence. Hard facts and solutions are given short shrift in an atmosphere thick with wrongheaded assumptions and blind prejudice.

In an exhaustive analysis published last June, Money magazine highlighted the gap between beliefs about crime and the facts about crime. One common misconception is that violent crime--murder, rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault--is soaring. According to Justice Department statistics, violent crime peaked in the early 1980s and has decreased a bit since then.

Other misconceptions abound: More than half of those in the magazine's poll believed that blacks commit most crimes. Statistics dispute that. Whites commit about 54% of crimes; blacks, 45%. Many Americans believe incorrectly that blacks often target white victims. In fact, most crime is intraracial: In 1992, blacks were responsible for only 21% of the crimes against white victims. In that same year, whites were responsible for only 7% of the crimes committed against black victims. Regardless of their race, all Americans agree that there is too much violent crime in this country. But we are helpless to curb it until we come to terms with the facts. We cannot fight crime with hysteria. Unfortunately, recent elections gave us only that. Candidates pandered to our basest instincts, promising a prison on every corner and a guillotine in every town square. They refused to be honest about the enormous cost to taxpayers of ever-expanding prison construction and the waste of sending to prison nonviolent offenders who might be rehabilitated.

But some critics of anti-crime demagoguery offered a shortsightedness of their own. Self-appointed black leaders refused to acknowledge the carnage that violent black criminals inflict on poor black neighborhoods, denouncing even well-crafted proposals to keep the most violent criminals behind bars. Afraid of acknowledging black crime to a country in racial backlash, they also refused to be honest.

Our streets and homes are littered with the victims of that dishonesty.

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