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Who Played The Race Card In The Webster Smith Case?
Who played the race card in the Webster Smith case? Was it Commandant of Cadets Doug Wisniewski and CWO2 David French? Or was it Webster Smith’s defense team? Could it have been the news media? Someone certainly did, because the race of the accused was reported before the trial began. Early newspaper reports of the investigation and pending trial carried a picture of the accused. Cadet Webster Smith was shown wearing his formal mess dress uniform. Only the Commandant of Cadets at the Academy had access and authority to release such a personal photo of Cadet Smith. It was a deliberate move to put a face on the alleged crime. The Coast Guard wanted to paint it black. Webster Smith was intended to become the poster child of the sexual predator at the Coast Guard Academy.
Playing the race card in this instance was clearly a racist act. The social and legal meaning of “racism” is in a state of flux. In this post-Civil Rights era, we have no clear and agreed-upon meaning for the term. This has lead to confusion and disagreement. Reasonable people of goodwill may make sincere claims of racist behavior that strike others as wrong and misdirected. The Civil Rights movement succeeded in convincing most Americans that racial bias and prejudice is wrong and fundamentally un-American.
Playing the race card is not new. It is wrong and troubling for several reasons; it is dishonest; and, it typically involves jumping to a conclusion that is not compelled by the facts. The Case of Webster Smith involves objective facts that people can observe and verify.
What the people who singled out Webster Smith for court-martial did not seem to foresee was that playing the race card is dangerous and shortsighted. Also, it is just plain mean-spirited. Racism ruins careers and destroys reputations. Webster Smith’s career as a Coast Guard officer died before it was born. Captain Douglas Wisnewski’s career was side-tracked; and, Admiral Van Sice’s career was not permitted the honorable end that it deserved.
Overuse and abuse of the claim of bias is bad for the Coast Guard and military justice, as well as society at large. Any claim that the race card was played in the Webster Smith Case inevitably provokes defensiveness and resentment from certain quarters. Playing the race card in this case probably lead to a presumption of guilt. Webster Smith was not able to receive a fair trial in that environment. He was constitutionally entitled to a presumption of innocence. Presuming the worst is understandable in a society in which racism persists but is rarely openly expressed. About two generations after the Coast Guard Academy opened its doors to its first Black cadet, racism reared its ugly head in a most daring and pernicious way.
Excerpts from The Day newspaper concerning the court-martial of Cadet Webster Smith said as follows:
Defense lawyers say race is a factor in the case. Smith is black, his accusers are white, and defense attorneys suspect the women conspired to bring false accusations against him.
If race wasn’t a factor when six women accused Smith of sexual misconduct, Merle Smith said, it might have been when a seventh woman came forward and the academy added new charges. Most of the sex-related charges have been dismissed.
“…as this thing has continued to evolve, I guess, as the first 16 charges didn’t appear to be going well, I guess they had to find another eight to see if they could make that case,” Merle Smith said.
Academy officials have said they will not comment on specific allegations before the trial.
The jury of Coast Guard officers included four white men, one white woman, three black men and a man of Asian descent.
Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen was correct. In his State of the Coast Guard address he said, “We have never been more relevant and we have never been more visible to the Nation we serve”.
We are more visible because we have received more publicity. For some people craving recognition, all publicity is good. It is free advertising. Not for an old and venerated service. For an old public service, bad publicity can be dangerous and disastrous.
There was security in our obscurity. Publicity is a blessing and a curse. You can no longer be hidden and presumed to be ethical, and competent. Now you have to demonstrate that competence, and you have to demonstrate the high moral behavior that you claim to have and want to instill in those coming after you. You cannot just talk that talk; now, you have to walk that walk.
The Smith case is the first court-martial of a cadet in the Academy’s history. The Smith case brought a lot of sudden attention.
The end of Admiral James Van Sice’s military career was more difficult news for the Academy. It has experienced a series of cadet run-ins with the law. The first and most prominent incident happened under Van Sice’s watch. He is the father of the Webster Smith debacle; however, he may not be the author. History will be the final judge, but it appears that the conspiracy was hatched in the Halls of Congress. Most of the evidence that I have been able to uncover and place in context points to former Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays.
The Commandant of the Coast Guard would have gone a long way toward restoring public faith in the Coast Guard and in the Academy, if he had punished Admiral Van Sice more appropriately and if he had been more forthcoming with the details of his misconduct and the type of punishment.
Smith’s attorneys, who raised the possibility that the charges could have been racially motivated, said they were pleased by the jury’s diversity. Smith was Black and all of the accusers were white.
In a January 21, 2006 article in The Day newspaper it was reported that from 1993 until the spring semester of 2005, the Coast Guard Academy had 10 reported incidents of sexual misconduct, according to information provided by the Academy. Of those, six incidents resulted in dismissal of the accused and two ended in resignation. In the remaining two cases, there was insufficient evidence to pursue charges.
One of the other two complaints, stemming from the first semester of 2005-06, resulted in a confession and the Dec. 15 dismissal of a first-year male student, who departed immediately, according to Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) French. He stated that a female cadet reported non-consensual sexual advances from a freshman male in the Chase Hall barracks, the dormitory where all students reside.
No criminal charges were filed, according to CWO French. Notice French said non-consensual sexual advances, when in point of fact it was rape, since the female cadet did not give her consent.
It is safe to assume that none of the male cadets involved were African American, because whenever a Black male is involved the news report very explicitly points out that the male was Black, as was reported in the Webster Smith case. Smith, a linebacker on the academy’s football team, was charged Feb. 9, 2006 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) ,military law ,with rape, assault, indecent assault and sodomy against female cadets.
The Associated Press reported on February 25, 2006 that a cadet was kicked out instead of prosecuted.
A local civilian prosecutor in New London, CT said he was reviewing how information is exchanged with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy after learning a cadet who admitted sexual misconduct wasn’t prosecuted but kicked out of school last year.
New London State’s Attorney Kevin Kane would not say whether he believes he has jurisdiction in the case.
An academy spokesman said he could not comment on the case, citing privacy rules.
“It was fully investigated and handled appropriately,” Chief Warrant Officer David French, the Academy spokesman, said.
According to an Academy discipline summary, the male cadet was expelled in December after admitting to sexual misconduct that was determined to be non-consensual.
So, there were 10 reported cases from 1993 to 2005, and not one resulted in a court-martial. The first report of sexual misconduct involving a Black cadet resulted in a General court-martial. It was not just any court-martial, but the type reserved for murder, treason, and assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm.
The Coast Guard Academy had 982 students, nearly 30 percent of whom were women. If a report involving sexual assault or misconduct is made to the chain of command the Coast Guard Investigative Service, CGIS, must examine it.
“The commandant of cadets, CAPT Douglas Wisniewski, took immediate action to initiate the investigation into the allegations”, CWO2 David French said. French declined a request for an interview with Commandant of Cadets, Capt. Douglas Wisniewski. The Coast Guard Academy largely limited its responses to brief written statements delivered by e-mail.
Captain Doug Wisniewski, who graduated from the Academy with the last all-male class, was replaced by the first woman to hold the post, Captain Judith Keene, who graduated in the second class to accept women.
“Sexual misconduct at the academy is defined as “acts that disgrace or bring discredit on the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Academy and are sexual in nature”, including lewd or lascivious acts, indecent exposure or homosexual conduct. But the definition also includes consensual acts that are prohibited on academy grounds, such as holding hands, kissing in public or sex. This does not include rape, because rape is not a consensual act.
If the Academy disposes of 10 cases of sexual misconduct without a court-martial, but on the 11th case of a report of sexual misconduct it convenes a General court-martial, is that playing the race card? What if all 10 of the first cases involved only white cadets, but the 11th case involved a Black cadet? One has to ask why the Black cadet was singled out for a court-martial. Of the three types of courts-martial available, the most extreme was chosen; that is, a General Court-martial. If found guilty, a Summary Court-martial could have awarded 30 days in jail as punishment; a Special Court-martial could have awarded up to six months; but, a General Court-martial could have awarded life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Is it wrong for Black people to ask if there is a double standard? Would that amount to paranoia on the part of Black people? Or would that be considered playing the race card simply to inquire? Is it absurd to believe that anything more than pure chance resulted in the court-martial of Webster Smith? The fact that he was court-martialed speaks to a social reality that African-Americans are acutely aware of in America. Race is not a card to be dealt, but it determines whom the dealer is and who gets dealt a losing hand. In this case Doug Wisniewski dealt the cards, and he dealt from the bottom of the deck
Whites are generally reluctant to acknowledge racism, but they are quick to accuse Black people of playing the race card. The tendency for whites to deny the extent of racism and racial injustice is reflected in the opinions solicited in Norwich on the day that Webster Smith was found guilty and later sentenced to six months in the brig. White comments were generally that this was a reasonable conclusion to the entire sorry affair. An Academy employee said that this is good. It shows that the Academy took timely and effective action. This was evidence of white denial and total indifference to Black persecution.
The Convening Authority for the court-martial was the Superintendent of the Academy, Admiral James Van Sice. Unbelievably, Admiral Van Sice went out of his way to talk to Belinda Smith, Webster Smith’s mother, during the trial. He kept assuring her that everything was going to be alright. On several occasions he told her that as soon as the trial was over, everything was going to be alright. One has to wonder for whom was he speaking. Was Admiral Van Sice in denial or did he think that Belinda and Cadet Webster Smith were expendable?
Perhaps this is why, contrary to popular belief, research indicates that people of color are actually reluctant to allege racism, be it on the job, or in schools, or anywhere else. Far from playing the race card at the drop of a hat, it is actually the case that black and brown folks typically stuff their experiences with discrimination and racism, only making an allegation of such treatment after many, many incidents have transpired, about which they said nothing for fear of being ignored or attacked.
So says Tim Wise, activist, lecturer and director of the new Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE). Tim Wise works from anecdote rather than academic argument to recount his path to greater cultural awareness in a colloquial, matter-of-fact quasi-memoir that urges white people to fight racism ‘for our own sake.’ Wise is the author of two books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. In White Like Me, Wise offers a highly personal examination of the ways in which racial privilege shapes the lives of most white Americans, overtly racist or not, to the detriment of people of color, themselves, and society.
Precisely because white denial has long trumped claims of racism, people of color tend to under-report their experiences with racial bias, rather than exaggerate them. When it comes to playing the race card, it is more accurate to say that whites are the dealers with the loaded decks.