The Curtis Flowers Case: Racism Made Visible

The United States has a problem with race. This has always been true since we’re a country founded on genocide and built by slavery but things have improved since then. We ended slavery and Jim Crow laws, codified civil rights, and increased representation of people of color in all aspects of society. Yay us, right? Well, not so fast. Racism hasn’t been eradicated; it’s merely gone underground (and not that deep either). But the surface invisibility served its purpose. It allowed someone like me, someone who was so proud of my wokeness, to truly believe things were getting better. But once that surface was scratched, I saw just how blind I’d been.

Some of that blindness is my own fault – I should’ve had my eyes checked – but much of it was caused by a society determined to keep our worst impulses hidden. Until recently, racism wasn’t a front page story in the media or, if it was, it wasn’t labelled as such (still a major problem). Without internet exposure, it’s doubtful that the mainstream media would’ve covered the stories of BBQ Becky, Permit Patty or the numerous other people who’ve called the police on people of color for merely living their lives. Even the myriad instances of people of color being assaulted or losing their lives due to racism would’ve been back-page stories if they made the news at all.

Our legal system quietly institutionalized racism through bail, selective prosecutions, choice of jurors, and laws specifically targeted at people of color. Our educational system whitewashes much of our history . Even the location and structure of our communities are often designed as a way to keep us divided and apart. That’s why the joke about a white person’s “one black friend” is so ingrained. Many white people don’t actually know more than one black person or, if they do, they don’t know them well. As such, society has made it easy for white people to not know what we’re not seeing. Until recently.

The deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others highlighted the bias of the police. The fight over the destruction of Confederate monuments required a re-examination of what we thought we knew about history. The Legacy Museum forced us to acknowledge just how much violence and inequity we’ve leveled against people of color. The installation of and support for a white supremacist in the White House compelled us to recognize just how prevalent white supremacy is in our society. While these realizations are distressingly new to many of us, people of color have known them all along. That’s the most devastating thing of all. I should’ve known. And I would have had I been paying closer attention, if I’d been willing to see what’s been hidden in plain sight.

Take, for example, the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man from Mississippi tried six times for murder. He’s been sitting on Death Row since 1997, most likely for a crime he didn’t commit. The case, known to listeners of the In the Dark podcast and viewers of the Wrong Man docu-series, was heard by the Supreme Court who overturned his most recent conviction due to racial bias in jury selection by the prosecutor. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The case is rife with racism and shoddy police work, starting with the decision to arrest Curtis based on the most circumstantial of evidence. Shady plea deals were struck, witnesses were coached, evidence was lost, law enforcement lied, and people of color were purposely kept off the juries. Prosecutor Doug Evans had his first three convictions thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court for misconduct and racial discrimination. The justices called it as bad a case of such racial discrimination “as we have ever seen.” Yet he was still allowed to keep his job. Now the Supreme Court has weighed in, also concluding that Doug Evans acted discriminatorily but nothing will be done. Given that he’s running unopposed for re-election, he once again will be in charge of Curtis Flowers’ fate.

Also still on the job is trial judge, Joseph Loper. He repeatedly accepted without evidence Evans’ assertion that he was being fair. In the 5th trial, Loper was the one who insisted that James Bibbs, a black man who was the sole juror voting for acquittal, be arrested for perjury. The evidence for this “perjury” came from a note sent by a white juror and led to Mr. Bibbs being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after the trial. While the Mississippi’s Attorney General’s office later dismissed the charge, the message to the black community was clear.

But that’s just the legal part of it. People in Winona, Mississippi who have spoken out in support of Curtis have had their houses burned down. Others have been run out of the community because they spoke to reporters and showed themselves interested in justice, not racism. Still others have kept silent, aware of the dangers inherent in speaking out. All this because most of the victims were white and the supposed killer is black. All this because we have yet to confront the true legacy of race in this country. All this because we have yet to make it right.

So where do we go from here? Now that many of us have started to see what we should’ve seen all along, how can we make it better? Perhaps Germany can show us the way. After World War II, they implemented a philosophy called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means “working through the past” and they take this process seriously. In addition to making laws prohibiting discrimination and enforcing them vigorously, their two mainline churches — Protestant and Roman Catholic — developed a “theology of repentance” and continue to discuss what this means in daily practice. Schools educate German children via a curriculum that provides recurring lessons on different aspects of Nazism in German history, politics, and religion from the fifth grade onward. This includes trips to concentration camps.

The government built a number of public monuments to Holocaust victims and concentration camps are open to visitors as memorials and museums. Most towns have plaques on walls marking the spots where atrocities occurred. The German government also paid survivors reparations and, just last year, announced an increase in funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors. Clearly, if we are to emulate Vergangenheitsbewältigung, we have some work to do.

During an In the Dark episode, a woman waiting in line to hear the Supreme Court case said she was there because of the injustice of it all. “When do they say stop?” she asked. She was talking about the Curtis Flowers case but she just as well could’ve been talking about racism. For some people, the answer is “Never.” But for those of us who are not as blind as we used to be, the answer is “Now.”

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