'Supporting Our Own': Blacks Split on Michael Vick NFL quarterback Michael Vick plans to plead guilty to federal dog fighting charges next week. The case has ignited a spirited public debate. There are questions as to whether his support among some African-Americans is simply due to race, based on a belief that Vick is just the latest high-profile black man to be vilified in the press. Hear a debate on this issue.
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'Supporting Our Own': Blacks Split on Michael Vick

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'Supporting Our Own': Blacks Split on Michael Vick

'Supporting Our Own': Blacks Split on Michael Vick

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: Our money coach Alvin Hall helps a listener figure out if she's ready to buy a new home. You can listen in.

But first, we're going to turn now to the continuing story about football star Michael Vick. This week, his attorneys announced that he plans to plead guilty to charges that he was part of a dog fighting operation. And in the weeks leading up to the decision, an interesting racial divide has emerged. Although it's by no means unanimous on either side, surveys show that African-Americans are far more likely than whites to suggest that Vick is being singled out for punishment. So that led us to wonder why this case resonates with African-Americans, and should it? And as many of you know, my husband Billy Martin is representing Michael Vick in this case. So this morning I'm handing the mic to my colleague, NPR correspondent Allison Keyes. Welcome, Allison.

ALLISON KEYES: Thanks, Michel.

In the studio with me right now is Michael Eric Dyson. He's the author of several books on race and politics and now a professor at Georgetown University. We're also joined by Mark Gray, host of "The Sports Groove" on WOL-AM in Washington, DC. He joins us on the phone from his home in Maryland. And Katheryn Russell-Brown is a professor of Law at the University of Florida and the author of the book "Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime, and African Americans." She joins us from the University of Florida News Bureau in Gainesville. Welcome to all of you.

Mr. MARK GRAY (Host, The Sports Groove, WOL-AM): Thank you.

Dr. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author; Professor, Georgetown University): Good morning.

KEYES: Michael, since you're here sitting in front of me, I'm going to start with you. A New York Times/CBS poll found that the number of black people who support Vick is much higher than the number of white people. The 2 Live Stews, hosts of the popular black sports talk show, have voiced their support and sympathy for the star athlete. Let's take a quick listen.

(Soundbite of TV show, "2 Live Stews")

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody's lining up, talking about Mike and taking the shots in Mike, who did a very dumb and stupid thing.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. And like I said earlier, man, the people that are celebrating that Mike Vick is going to jail, they're like one for four.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, yeah.

KEYES: Michael, why do you think this is?

Dr. DYSON: Well, I think first of all, African-American people historically haven't gotten a fair shake in the criminal justice system, so black people tend to automatically and defensively respond in a protective fashion toward African-American - especially icons, celebrities and other symbols in the public sphere of who seemed to be subject to unfair abuse of the system. No one is declaring that Michael Vick shouldn't be punished for what he did now he's admitted he's done wrong. And so, I don't think any black person in his or her right mind would say, well, the guy shouldn't be punished. The point is why should he be singled out in such a fashion that his punishment may be more extreme than others, or he's made the test case or the test balloon for some forces we know have been going on for quite a while?

KEYES: Mark, are you hearing similar things on your show?

Mr. GRAY: Oh, certainly. I mean, it's the situation just like Dr. Dyson said in regards to not getting a fair shake with regards to the criminal justice system. It's a circumstance that resonates because just about everybody in the African-American community knows someone who's been victimized by the community. And to a certain extent, in the African-American community, I think there would be more of an anti-Vick sentiment if we were dealing with the killing of people as opposed to animals. And that's the thing that really resonates with the people who are in a supportive posture with Vick right now.

They say, you know, if the guy had raped someone, if they guy had killed somebody, a human being, they would be more anti-Michael Vick. But the thing that it's animals is one of those things that have a lot of people on edge and a lot of people uncomfortable with the treatment of Vick.

KEYES: I have to tell you right now, I am the animal queen, so we'll get to that whole thing in a moment. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATHERYN RUSSELL-BROWN (Professor, Law, University of Florida; Author, Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime, and African): Yes. If I could make one point…

KEYES: Katheryn, please.

Ms. RUSSELL-BROWN: I wanted to point out that I think a lot of what's going on in terms of African-American views on the case has to do with the issue of relative justice. It's not just a question of whether or not Michael Vick is being singled out, but how we would think about the case, how the media would treat the case if it involved someone white.

When we were talking about the Duke lacrosse case, when that was the major news story, the big concern became not rushing to judgment. Okay. But with the Michael Vick case, it seems as though as everyone was ready to pass judgment on the case, declare him guilty and pronounce him dead in the water before a trial, before a guilty plead.

KEYES: Katheryn, why do you think this is different from cases, like - well, let's go to O.J., R. Kelly, Michael Jackson. I mean, they've had some sort of public support from parts of the black community. I mean, why is this a different thing?

Ms. RUSSELL-BROWN: Well, as Professor Dyson has said, that African-Americans take - really take a long view of history. This isn't just one case. This is a part of a long history of cases particularly singling out athletes for, you know, attention and for scorn. And so African-Americans look at that and just raise the question of whether or not there is a difference in treatment. I think that African-Americans are looking to these cases to see how they are decided, and it's interesting to note that when you think in terms of who is most despised in this country, at least, you know, by looking at the headlines, it seems to be O.J. Simpson, Barry Bonds and Michael Vick. Do you see a pattern?

KEYES: Michael, is there a different standard for black athletes?

Dr. DYSON: Oh, absolutely. I think Professor Brown is brilliantly, you know, dissecting this phenomenon. And Mr. Gray eloquently did it as well. First of all, you know, we can joke and say black people are not known to be great supporters of PETA because Lassie and Rin Tin Tin didn't come to the Civil Rights Movement and show their support. Now we could say, a ha-ha.

KEYES: Come on, now.

Dr. DYSON: But the point is, I'm being facetious, but look. Lassie stayed on the air for 15 years, Nat King Cole couldn't stay on his show for six months. Dogs and animals have been treated - relatively speaking - with greater respect and regard - even from animal lovers - than African-American people. When you look at Hurricane Katrina, they have a famous picture of a bus full of dogs and animals being treated to first-class citizenship rights in America while black people were drowning.

And I'm saying to you, this is not to disrespect the needs of other sentient animals who would coexist with us on the human space called earth. It is to suggest, however, that many white people treat their dogs better than black people. And if black people were considered shadow animals during slavery and a lot after that so the de-humanization…

KEYES: So what disturbs me…

Dr. DYSON: …of black people is very profound.

KEYES: So what disturbs me is that an African-American man who came from that legacy could do the same thing to dogs that white people did to us during the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. DYSON: True. There's no question about that. But you know what? We're not dogs. We're not animals. We are African-American human beings. And what he did was reprehensible. But I think also - and I know brother Gray wants to jump in - also my point simply is this: it's not the fact that we shouldn't hold Michael Vick accountable for what he did, but to put dogs and animals parallel to black people is the extension of the legacy of slavery, not its contradiction.

KEYES: Okay. Michael, stop. Mark, bring it on.

Mr. GRAY: He made a very good point. And it takes me back to a conversation that I had with African-American man who's of the baby boomer generation who was on the frontlines of the civil rights movement, and the resonance that really has been indicated on my show is that it's a powerful, popular African-American man who is financially successful that the system seems to want to tear down. And granted, he put himself in this unfortunate and, quite frankly, ignorant circumstance, but that seems to be what comes across with the African-American baby booming sports fan that calls in to my show that I have conversations with. It's a systematic tearing down of a popular African-American figure, which, you know, people who are older than myself have seen for quite some time.

And it's not to justify his behavior, but, you know, you brought up R. Kelly. You brought up Barry Bonds. You know, it's the same thing that happens just about in every sport or in every place where you have a record that's about to be taken down by a African-American, there is this sense of controversy. It's something that's been permeating the sports world for years. Go back to when Hank Aaron was breaking down Babe Ruth's record, and there's something that we have to deal with in terms of certain segments of society not wanting African-American personalities and athletes to be successful, to be idolized in certain communities. And Michael Vick put himself in a position where he could be torn down.

KEYES: Katheryn, Katheryn…

Ms. RUSSELL-BROWN: (unintelligible)…

KEYES: …I've seen - before you talk, let me ask you a question. I've seen some comments and some of the papers completely backing up what Mark is saying. And in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some of the people commenting imply that not only are whites out to destroy him, their other issue was that as a black celebrity, you're supposed to leave your poor past and your friends from the hood behind you. Do you think that's got a lot to do with what's going on here?

Ms. RUSSELL-BROWN: Well, I do. But I also think it has to do with a different worldview of how you look at these cases. For African-Americans, we ask a wide-ranging series of questions. Did the person commit the offense? If he did, was he set up? Would he have - would he risk everything he has to commit such a crime? You know, is he the only person who's committed the offense? You know, how are whites treated under similar circumstances?

And then, on the other side, for whites, they tend to focus on one question: did he commit the offense? Okay. And so, we're talking about a whole different approach, a whole different perspective on how to look at these cases. And I think that for many African-Americans, the comments that they are making really get at holding America's feet to the fire in terms of what the right thing is and calling for due process, reminding people that they cast - or should have the presumption of innocence does not condone animal cruelty.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking about the Michael Vick case with Michael Eric Dyson, Mark Gray and Katheryn Russell-Brown.

I'm going to turn it back to Allison Keyes.

KEYES: Thanks, Michel. Michael couldn't wait to respond to that, so come on.

Prof. DYSON: No. I think both of these panels have been equally brilliant in underscoring facts that people tend to overlook. First of all, the history and legacy of white supremacy and social injustice against African-American people not getting a fair shake means that our celebrities, whether they want to or not, unavoidably become representatives. And what's interesting, the good things that black celebrities do don't accrue or get ascribed to the rest of black people, but the bad things they do get ascribed to black people. The good things that a athlete does is his individual success. The bad things he does are ascribed to black people in general. But the opposite is not true. So when you look at that, you've got to represent that.

Number two, let's not underestimate the presence of Billy Martin here. Billy Martin is one of the most significant legal presences - with the death of Johnnie Cochran, arguably, the most prominent black lawyer along with Willie Gary in the public's sphere. So that his presence there suggests to the rest of us, here's a guy who's certainly a tough-nosed attorney who's not for any b.s. here. So when he represents Michael Vick, we know that what's being brought to bear there is an intense black moral concern that we need to be - dealt with.

And then finally this - let's be honest. The bottom line here is that Michael Vick is being treated in a certain way because he did hang on. Like Allen Iverson - I just left Philadelphia - Allen Iverson, you know, you're hanging out with our guys from your hood. Well, George Bush does the same thing. He brings all his cronies to the White House, and we know cronyism has corrupted the government.

But let me say this, ironically enough as the guy who's been known to defend these kids. Maybe this is a warning sign here to the people with Michael Vick and others. The boys from your hood don't have as much to lose as you, so that when Jesse Jackson said when the chicken and a pig are going down the street and they talk about - having a discussion about breakfast, all the chicken has to give up is his eggs. The pig has to give up his behind. Michael Vick is the pig in this case. And sometimes it's a warning to you homeboys - be careful about your boys. They will trade on you, will not go to jail, will sell your butt out. Be careful who you hang with.

KEYES: I have to say, Michael, in my beauty shop, the women were saying exactly the same thing. And they're like, here is this man with all this money and how this power - you didn't have enough sense if you were going to do such a thing to hang out with people that weren't going to get you busted.

Katheryn, are you hearing the same thing?

Prof. RUSSELL-BROWN: Yes. Absolutely. People are questioning his judgment. I think it's a legitimate question. I think that with regard to how African-Americans view the case that it has everything to do with, you know, the decisions that are made with friendships that, you know, are rooted in the history. But that's an issue for sports.

KEYES: Let me ask you a secondary question, Katheryn. There are some critics who have said the same kind of consideration that athletes are getting are - isn't extended to women who are being abused. Do you think that's true?

Prof. RUSSELL-BROWN: Oh, absolutely. I look at black protectionism, you know, how the African-American community responds when serious charges are leveled against high-profile African-Americans. I mean, that the same kind of, you know, love for O.J., the same kind of love for, whether it's Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant or R. Kelly, is just not there with regards to African-American women.

KEYES: I want to go back to the legal issue here for a second. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has come out in support of Vick, as well as the local Atlanta NAACP chapter. They've been saying the same thing that you guys have been saying - don't rush to judgment. But if you look at the indictment, it's a little hard not to, although in fairness to my colleagues sitting next to me. Yes, they are very vague about the dates. We've been talking about that. However, they're specific about stuff like accusing him of having been involved in a $26,000 purse. And after his dog lost the purse, he supposedly consulted on electrocuting the dog, wetting down the dog first and electrocuting the dog, which just makes a person like me go, wow, you know.

Then he allegedly took $23,000 out of a book bag to pay for said dog. And then later in the indictment, it accuses him and others of having killed eight dogs by hanging, drowning and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground. I mean, seriously, Mark, how can you say that's not outrageous?

Mr. GRAY: Well, I think that to think all African-Americans are in support of allegations like that is misleading. I mean, we're not monolithic as a people in terms of the way that we look at various issues. And this is one of those issues that has divided people. Everybody I know who read the indictment were sickened by the nature of the allegations. And what we were hoping for was not to, you know, rush to judgment, and most important, just let the due process of the legal system play out. Nobody is condoning the behavior in the community.

I think the issue with the African-American community right now in terms of the people that call into my program are let the system work its course. And a lot of people were of the opinion that with the conviction according to public opinion and the impact of PETA. And I think that we really have to look at the Humane Society and the PETAs of the world who really played a role in it. We made reference to the Duke University lacrosse team and the allegations of rape. You know, it's almost as though the religious community and the African-American leaders in the Durham area were almost played off in terms of their speaking out, where PETA and the Humane Society and so many animal lovers turned this thing into a vendetta against Vick, although he put himself into that.

Prof. DYSON: Yeah.

Mr. GRAY: And what we've got to understand is there is a sense that you have to keep it real by remaining true to the people that you were around when you were growing up and making your way through your level of success.

KEYES: Mark, hang on, I need to interrupt you because we're running a little short on time. And clearly, we could sit here and talk about this all day, but I want to ask you guys one more, last quick question and give me about 20 seconds to answer.

Do you think that fairness is at work here? Is a felony charge out of line? Did they go too far with this? And I'm going to start with you, Michael.

Prof. DYSON: Yeah. I think, first of all, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of football, say don't even come to camp. Oh, that's really signifying that we're going to have due process here, and that he will be treated fairly. I think that, yes, the extreme application of the law in Michael Vick's case is unfortunately in an unfairly racially charge. Whether it's racist is another question. It certainly has racial consequence, and that doesn't mean you have racist intent. That means, inevitably, Michael Vick will be treated differently.

KEYES: Katheryn?

Prof. RUSSELL-BROWN: I think, once again, we're looking to see how other people in a similar circumstance are being treated. And African-Americans are concerned about not just justice, but relative justice. How are we treated versus whites? Versus other people in the criminal justice system? And once again, it looks like an African-American male who's successful, who's, you know…

KEYES: Katheryn, I - have to interrupt you and give Mark 10 seconds to answer really quick.

Mr. GRAY: I don't think the NFL…

KEYES: Sorry.

Mr. GRAY: …commissioner was in a position where he could allow Michael Vick to come to camp, because it was going to put the rest of the team in harm's way because you'll never know if some idiot was going to do something to defame or to hurt them. But I think that the question becomes once Michael Vick pays his debt to society, will he be given a second chance to play in the NFL?

KEYES: Thank you guys for a very spirited conversation. Got to hand the mic back to Michel.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you, Allison. Oh, it's hot in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Michael Eric Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University and author of many books on race and politics. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Mark Gray is host of "The Sports Groove" on WOL AM in Washington, D.C. He joined us on the phone. And Katheryn Russell-Brown is a professor of law at the University of Florida School of Law. She's also the author of "Protecting Our Own: Race, Crime and African Americans." She joined us from the University of Florida news bureau.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. GRAY: Thank you.

Prof. DYSON: Thank you.

Prof. RUSSELL-BROWN: Thank you.

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