Cook: Race matters

Cook: Race matters

February 22nd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

I don't think we need to be afraid of talking about it. Not in this case, at least.

Blackness. Whiteness.

And how sometimes, we should be colorblind. And other times, race matters most.

This spring, Hamilton County commissioners will appoint a new judge to replace retiring Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey.

That person should be Curtis Bowe.

He is incredibly, vastly, perfectly qualified.

He's also black.

And so are way too many of the kids coming through our juvenile justice system.

For many of them, Bowe could be the first black man they encounter in a position of power. A role model. Someone with authority, respect and control.

Someone who looks just like them.

For years, Bowe has served as a Juvenile Court referee, which is like a junior varsity judge. He's also an attorney, practicing law for nearly 20 years.

Folks say he's wise. Convicted. Compassionate. He has come close to tears over the fate of his clients.

His appointment also could break a rather unsettling tradition of pervasive whiteness: never, ever, not once has the Hamilton County Commission ever appointed a black judge.

And never have county voters elected a minority judge, either.

In numbers completely disproportionate to the population, black kids accounted for more than half of every Juvenile Court case that was completed in 2011.

When dealing with such fragile and wrecked lives, anything and everything can help. Like the safety a 14-year-old first-time offender can feel upon seeing that the man before him -- who possesses godlike control over his fate -- has the same skin color.

And in a world where racism -- perceived or not -- is a factor, this safety can be the tip-top factor that nudges the kid into choosing the right road.

Yet here's the kicker, the place where it gets a little messy: This street doesn't always run in both directions.

In other words, if the majority of kids in juvenile justice system were white, the judge's race would not be a factor to consider.

Why? Because whiteness is the majority. White kids have no trouble finding -- within seconds -- someone that looks like them, understands them and won't double-think or burden them with token-ship because of skin color. This is the luxury of the majority.

Others have called it "an invisible knapsack." Like an invisible passport that people in the majority carry around that oftentimes they're -- we're -- unaware of.

My skin color doesn't work against me. I'm never asked to represent all of white Chattanooga. When I shop, I'm not followed. And so on.

I didn't speak to Bowe about this column. He may hate it. So don't hold it against him.

But, county commissioners, don't run from the fact that race plays a huge role in the juvenile justice system, and therefore ought to be considered.

Or at least talked about.