Washington. -- Why is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who came to national fame by accusing white police officers of raping Tawana Brawley despite a severe absence of evidence, now standing with former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson against Desiree Washington, whose rape claims proved to be much better grounded? Could it be the color of the accused?
Mr. Sharpton along with Tyson's other defenders organized a Harlem rally last week to "welcome" Tyson "home" after three years in prison for the rape. But, a week before the event, a group of Harlem residents and other African-American leaders rained on Tyson's parade. They denounced the idea of making a hero out of the convicted rapist. Suddenly embarrassed, participants scaled back a planned street festival and concert to a more sober-sounding "Day of Redemption."
Organizers said they were interested only in the themes of justice, forgiveness, redemption and black solidarity.
But several other themes also ring out in this story, dueling themes of victimization, each with its own deep historical roots and deep-seated resentments. Each collides with the other and creates a mess of contradictions and mixed signals sent to the young people for whom sports heroes are supposed to represent so much as role models.
These victim themes include:
Black men vs. the system: A history of false charges against embattled black male heroes like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey or Muhammad Ali has taught many African-Americans to presume innocence even after a black male hero is proved guilty.
"If he had been white, he would have never served a day on this crime," said the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, pastor of Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church and a member of a welcoming committee.
Black women vs. the system: A history of black women having been slandered as oversexed Jezebels has prompted many African-American women to rise up in recent years to defend their sisters. The night before Tyson's Harlem rally, women and girls who have been victims of violence held a candlelight vigil to protest the celebration for Tyson, who has maintained his innocence.
Yet, when Tyson was asked the next day about his history of violence to women, his manager, John Horne, yelled back, "Mike Tyson is not going to sit up here and answer silly questions."
Black women vs. black men: Just as powerful as the "black Jezebel" theme is the notion, which also dates back to slavery, of black women as co-conspirators with whites to oppress black men. Sensitivity to this notion has helped to silence innumerable black women who might otherwise speak out about their own victimization.
"Gangsta" worship: As in the battle over "gangsta rap," current fashion glorifies the ghetto gangster as the truly "authentic" black man and exempts him from responsibility for moral depravity by painting him as a "victim" of his surroundings.
This is, in some ways, an appropriate theme for Tyson, whose life has been a chain of troubles briefly interrupted by periods of glory. He was a street punk and purse snatcher from Brooklyn's ghetto streets when the late boxing manager Cus D'Amato gave him the only solidly adult guidance he has had in his life, other than his recent jailhouse conversion to Islam.
"Gangsta" worship is a distorted version of the larger society's adoration of sports heroes to the extent of quickly forgiving anything they do, as long as they return quickly to the ring or the fields of play for our amusement.
The same week of Tyson's rally, President Clinton's anti-drug czar, Lee Brown, who is black, and a former New York police commissioner, a black man, sharply criticized Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for rehiring Darryl Strawberry despite the player's history of drug abuse. Also, George Washington University was catching heat for recruiting Richie Parker, a high school basketball player who was convicted of sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl in a school stairwell.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot hold up sports figures as role models for kids if we are constantly going to give a pass to misbehavior we do not want our kids to imitate.
I wish Mike Tyson well, but for him to do well and serve as a worthy role model, the black community, more than anyone else's community, is obliged to hold his muscular feet to the cleansing fire of the highest ethical and moral standards. We cannot demand much better of others if we do not weed our own garden first.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.