Liddick: It’s not always about race |

Liddick: It’s not always about race

by Morgan Liddick

On Monday morning, January 4, Johnny Lee Wicks walked into the Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, Nevada and opened fire with a shotgun. He killed a 65-year-old security guard and critically wounded a US Marshall before being shot to death.

Evidently Mr. Wicks was motivated by a belief that he was a victim of racial discrimination. He had previously filed a lawsuit against a regional Social Security Administration commissioner, contending his monthly benefits had been reduced by $317 because he was black.

“It’s all about race,” he complained, although citing no evidence. “I am no fool.”

His suit was dismissed in September, noting that the reduction occurred when he moved to Nevada from California. As a Nevada resident, he was no longer entitled to the $317 supplement he had received while living in California. A Social Security Administration lawyer indicated that the disgruntled gunman had not bothered to use the SSA’s system of appeals. Instead, he voiced his disagreement by different means.

Serendipity placed Mr. Wicks’s story in the same news cycle as one about stubborn disparities in discipline in Colorado’s public school systems. The story noted that minority students are disciplined at a somewhat higher rate than that of the white majority. The suggestion was that these disparities were the result of some fault within the school system. Although the R-word was not used, it was clear that most of the hand-wringing involved concern that race was the motivating factor in much of the discipline.

According to Aurora Superintendent of Schools John Barry, “Overrepresentation is a problem.”

“Equity training” was featured as a response to the situation, as was the need to investigate teachers who “disproportionately discipline” certain groups. The discipline differential was regarded as “alarming” and as something that needed to be addressed, tout de suite. Which it does – but perhaps not in the way that Colorado’s educrats intend.

There is a clear, bright line between these two apparently unrelated items: both illustrate the almost-pathological insistence in American society to relate every disparity or slight to the question of race. Might I suggest a different and more productive approach?

Dr. Martin Luther King was right. In a truly post-racial society, we would judge people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That is evidently what Johnny Lee Wicks got from the Federal Courts, but he wasn’t satisfied with a decision that meant he had to accept responsibility for the financial implications of his decision to move to Nevada. Instead, he considered it a racial affront, so he burned out his apartment and shot two people.

Likewise with discipline in Colorado’s school systems. While not discounting the increasingly remote possibility of discrimination in dealing with students, might our educrats at least have considered the possibility that, in a great many cases, sanctions were justified? That for whatever reasons -‚ social associations, subculture, peer pressure, lack of initiative or plain sociopathy– there was actual disruption and that rates of discipline reflected a justified reaction to behavior? That in fact students were being judged “… by the content of their character?”

I’m certain considering such a possibility would be uncomfortable for almost everyone. We have been trained for decades that the default explanation for any differential among groups of people – in performance, in outcome, in treatment, in any area one might care to measure – is due to racial discrimination, either overt or sub rosa. Moving beyond the comfort zone of this familiar Shibboleth will be hard. It is also necessary.

We have been told repeatedly that in education, establishing high standards of performance and insisting that students attain them is motivational. Do we really believe this? If we do, why not act as if we do – and extend the philosophy beyond learning to other aspects of life? Why not hold people responsible for their actions – and their failures? Why not stop making excuses, and treat uncivilized, dysfunctional or antisocial behavior for what it is?

“Sexting” in a classroom is disruptive, whether done by Hernandez or O’Malley.

Lying, cheating or stealing should be punished whether the perpetrator’s name is Saakashvili or Shabaaz.

Misogyny and thuggery should be denounced, whether offered up by Eminem or L’il Bow Wow.

If we really want a society in which race doesn’t matter, we all have to start acting as if it doesn’t. We need not only to give lip service to the measurement of men “by the content of their character,” but to actually do it. And leave the rest in the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Whatever people like Johnny Lee Wicks might think about that.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at Also, comment on this column at

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