A challenge to white readers

Right after "Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas" hit bookstores, a woman I've known my entire life rushed into a mall and snatched up all 10 copies.

Seconds later, her proud declaration, "My daughter wrote this book!" explained the enthusiastic behavior. Unsuspecting shoppers were soon treated to a Letterman-like list on why everyone in America should read it. In no time, my mother made her investment back.

Since the book debuted in June, Mom can now take credit for more than 100 copies flying off store shelves. But it's going to take a lot more than a mother's love to convince droves of ordinary Americans to leave their comfort zones to spend money to understand why racial healing is a message worth the embrace.

During my recent book tour, I noticed that most sales were to black readers. Ditto for the bulk of positive coverage, which has been largely in the black media. I hope more whites turn out for scheduled appearances in the fall.

When I started the project, my goal was to be inclusive. I refused to write an account that would alienate one group in favor of another. Instead, I opted for the simple truth about how and why a black man was dragged to death in 1998 by three white men in Jasper, Texas. More important, I also offer readers the components that forever changed my life: justice and the idea that one little town might be a model for larger cities where justice is sometimes absent.

For potential readers who may dismiss "Hate Crime" as important only for black people, as one consumer boldly stated, I implore you to take a walk in my shoes to the town of Jasper. This logging community, dubbed the "jewel of the forest," with a black mayor, has always been different from other East Texas towns. The population of 8,000 is equal parts white and nonwhite. Neighborhoods are racially mixed. A person of color can walk into a white-owned store and feel welcome. After the crime, the emerald lost some of its luster. But never confuse Jasper with the town of Vidor 50 miles away, the Ku Klux Klan capital of Texas.

Covering all three trials did more than provide me with a ringside seat; it also aided my perspective as a native Southerner who happens to be black, one who had to come to terms with all the racist events of my childhood.

I was roundly criticized for not writing a book that bashed Jasper or spread divisive rumors about the town and its citizens, and I will forever defend my thesis: Jasper didn't drag James Byrd Jr. to death, three people did. I will never believe the crime was premeditated or the work of some mastermind trying to start a race war. Jasper, or the East Texas environment, is not a big bad accomplice that secretly applauded this violently racist behavior. In short, a combination of beer, fear, opportunity, and hatred were factors that drove this crime, as well as the truck Mr. Byrd was dragged behind for three miles.

I also firmly believe that the American penal system bears some blame. Two of the defendants were ex-cons, and had lived in the strict segregation and racial suspicion that marks prison culture. In researching the book, I walked through one prison facility after another to observe life behind bars. A prisoner who bucks the separation of races does so at his peril.

Every facet of the Jasper case, from trials to protests, included varying forms of racial separation. At the first trial, black and white spectators sat separately. But in the end, this little Texas town maintained its decency and ability to examine individuals based on character, not color.

Recently a talk show host asked what has changed racially in America since the Jasper dragging. My answer threw us both: "Not much," and then, "Everything." When you see the recent video of a white police officer in California striking a teenage black male in handcuffs, it's hard to believe this is 2002.

After 9/11, the power of hatred still appears quite real. Terrorists have hijacked our security with their unshakable ability to hate. The painful lesson is that whether hatred is directed at one man based on the color of his skin, or an entire nation for her beliefs, it is a powerful emotion with lasting results.

The story of what I witnessed in Jasper and how it altered my course is much more than a gory retelling of a horrific crime. It is the story of us – Black and White in a marriage that tests humanity. Even if others are in denial, I acknowledge the relationship in a book about hope and hatred.

Mom is certainly proud.

• Joyce King is a freelance writer.

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