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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999/ 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Milking tragedy --
WHEN TWO TEENAGERS, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, gunning down twelve classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives, the nation was united in horror and mourning. Six months later, Columbine seems to have become a microcosm for some of the uglier aspects of modern American life. For instance, shameless litigation (Klebold's parents have sued the sheriff's department for not warning them about Harris's violent tendencies). And racial antagonism.

Initially, the families of the dead were all one grieving community. Now, the parents of Isaiah Shoels, the sole African American victim, stand alone, claiming that they have been re-victimized by racism. They say that the community has cast them out, put them on trial, branded them rabble-rousers. Meanwhile, many locals say that it's Michael and Vonda Shoels who have rejected the community and made spurious accusations of racism.

The Shoels family's story illustrates a divide which previously emerged, for example, in the reaction to the O.J. Simpson case. Many white Americans believe that many blacks obsessively see white racism everywhere and thus contribute to racial division. Many black Americans believe most whites are either complicit in racism or in denial, incapable of understanding the experience of blacks who face racism every day.

I realize that personal experience matters and whites lecturing blacks on racial paranoia can come across as arrogant and insensitive. But perception is not everything and objective reality is not a myth. We can at least try to consider the facts.

And the facts are that, by all accounts, America was eager to embrace the Shoelses. To many, the sight of an African-American father weeping alongside bereaved white parents was a touching symbol of unity in grief. Michael Shoels appeared on the Today show. The family was deluged with sympathetic mail, and received free plane tickets and car rentals for friends and relatives to attend the funeral.

The goodwill began to ebb after the Shoelses declared that their son was murdered because of his race -- which hardly made sense, given that he was the only black victim among 13 dead and 24 wounded. (While witnesses reported that the killers hurled a racial slur at Isaiah before shooting him, it was one of many taunts they directed at all their victims.) The Shoelses have refused to join the support groups for survivors and families, saying that their view of the massacre as a racial hate crime would not be respected there; they have also charged that the therapists provided by the county are coaching witnesses to change their stories to boost the theory that Harris and Klebold selected their victims randomly.

There was more bad feeling when, on top of the $50,000 donation received by each victim's family, Michael Shoels asked for more money -- for a new home, since he believed his whole family was targeted, and for private counseling. After being turned down, the Shoelses called for a national boycott of United Way, which was administering the funds.

Reading about the Shoelses, one feels sadness. These are people who have suffered what may be the worst calamity that can befall a person: losing a child. It's hard to criticize them for not thinking rationally about this tragedy or trying to find some larger meaning in it. It's hard to begrudge them the belief that by speaking out, they are fulfilling their duty to their son.

There is no such excuse for those who have exploited the Shoelses for their own agenda: Sam Riddle, the Colorado activist who became the Shoelses' family adviser and has pushed the view that "racism pulled the trigger at Columbine," or nationally known racial demagogue Al Sharpton, who has invited them to address a rally in Brooklyn.

Given the dreadful history of racial oppression and prejudice in America, it's not difficult to understand why some African-Americans would believe the most improbable claims of racism. But why should those who claim to champion racial equality lead them down the path of paranoia?

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young