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There are certain little lies that everyone tells. We don’t intend to be malevolent, but we know what sounds like the right thing to say and we comply. It sounds right to say that we won’t watch the accident by the side of the road. We fuss and fume about rubber necking motorists but the sight of cops, ambulances and emergency vehicles with flashing lights is more than we can stand to ignore. All of which brings us to one Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s life is the highway accident we promise not to watch but whose presence renders us incapable of averting our eyes.

Our celebrity worshipping culture can be seen as an amusement or an annoyance, depending on one’s mood or point of view. But as far as black people are concerned, it can be a perilous distraction from issues that are far more important. To put it bluntly, we are too often fooled by our inclination to support prominent blacks who find themselves in hot water, even those who are undeserving of our support or even pose a serious risk to us all.

There is a very long list of outrages committed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Number one on the list has to be his shedding of crocodile tears during his confirmation hearing when he was quite properly asked about sexual harassment allegations. Can we ever forget the words “high tech lynching?” Those words held more magic than “abra cadabra” and changed the minds of many detractors. Of course after he began what can only be called the worst record of any Justice in the modern history of the Supreme Court, there was chagrin, regret and embarrassment from those who were taken in by his slick but effective ploy to win the hearts and minds of otherwise intelligent people. Ever since that awful day of Thomas’ machination the claim of a “lynching” has arisen for every black person with a gripe. It was Jermaine, no need to ask the last name, who gave us the “L” word in this latest installment of the Jackson saga.

In reality, lynching victims were hung, shot, beaten to death, castrated, or burned alive. In some horrific cases they suffered more than one of those fates. They did not have private jets whisk them to their arraignments where high priced lawyers were waiting to pay bail in the amount of $3 million. Falling into the hands of law enforcement was often the beginning of their ordeals.

It is true that there is legal lynching today. Just ask Delma Banks. Delma Banks is a black Texan convicted of murdering a white co-worker more than twenty years ago. In March of this year Banks was strapped to a gurney and came within ten minutes of being another capital punishment statistic. He was saved by an eleventh hour Supreme Court stay of execution. The only evidence against Banks was given by two jail-house snitches who later recanted their testimony.

Delma Banks is known by a relatively small number of people, Michael Jackson is one of the most famous people on earth today. The injustices inherent in our legal system that sent Banks to the execution chamber threaten the lives of every black person in America on a daily basis. Instead of bringing these issues to the public our media and our culture exalt a famous but clearly unstable man who goes before the camera proclaiming his love of sleeping with children.

The travails of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant or whoever comes after them should only be seen as good theater. Jackson’s mug shot, which resembles either a wax figure or a badly made puppet, should only amuse us. We all have our guilty pleasures in life and celebrity gossip is a relatively harmless one. So it is acceptable to watch Court TV for days on end to hear the latest conjecture about the case. But we should remember the tag line of the old commercials for television psychics: “For entertainment purposes only.”

During the O.J. trial, again no last name is necessary, I had a recurring fantasy that black people would rise up and declare in one loud voice that we didn’t care about him. We knew the evidence pointed to his guilt and that he didn’t identify with the rest of black America. He wouldn’t even associate himself with safe pursuits like the United Negro College Fund telethon.

My fantasy remained just that. Black people remained loyal to O.J. Simpson and to the idea of his innocence, or the idea that a rich black person could get away with murder, or the joy of making white people mad, or of seeing another black person get him out of trouble. The drama ended with O.J. being honored at a black church in Washington, D.C., resplendent in African garb. Not only would my fantasy remain unrealized, but it had gone down in flames in one of the most ridiculous and sickening sights I had ever witnessed.

The latest in the cycle of foolishness has been aided and abetted by black leadership. Rev. Jesse Jackson has already spoken of “overkill” in the case. But Jesse isn’t alone. The entertainment value of Michael Jackson appearing at Al Sharpton’s House of Justice last year was priceless. Whispering that Sony record executive Tommy Mottola was “mean and devilish” and that he had been treated badly by his label because he was black made for a truly unforgettable moment. The laughs were never ending when Al Sharpton had to backtrack and defend Tommy Mottola after giving Jackson a forum for attacking him.

Is it possible for Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson to politely tell Michael Jackson that they are too busy to talk about him? I don’t know if Sony under promoted Jackson’s last CD. For the sake of argument let us suppose it did just that. All black people are treated badly by corporate America. Whose story should be frontpage news, Jackson’s or the black employees who just sued Abercrombie and Fitch for discriminatory hiring practices? Do Al and Jesse have nothing else to say? Of course they do. They have been articulate spokesmen for many years over a wide range of issues, but the mention of a celebrity name seems to enthrall them as much as it does the average person glued to the television watching Jermaine on Larry King Live.

I have not learned my lesson from O.J. Simpson. I am still hoping for a collective shoulder shrug when the plight of a legally challenged celebrity comes to the public arena. In my latest fantasy Jesse Jackson is asked about the new charges against Michael Jackson and replies, “I always hope that justice is done, but most people facing our legal system are at greater risk than Michael Jackson. There are hundreds of death row inmates who do not have effective counsel. I hope that you in the media will give equal attention to the larger issues of our criminal justice system.” I know. It will never happen. Perhaps I should start looking forward to seeing Michael Jackson wearing African robes in a black church.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at



November 27, 2003
Issue 66

is published every Thursday.

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