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Amid Detroit beating story, acts of racial reconciliation

Robin Washington

By now, everyone in Detroit has had an opportunity to show love for Steve Utash, whose beating by a mob after he stopped to help a child he struck with his pickup truck has sparked outrage.

It’s also fueled efforts toward racial reconciliation, though it may not be playing that way in the rest of the country.

“‘Race is being looked at’ as a possible motive in attack,” CNN reported five days after the April 2 incident in which Utash, who is white, was beaten by as many as a dozen African American attackers in the city’s overwhelmingly black East Side. A CBS Detroit report was more blunt: “White man beaten by mob in Detroit after hitting boy with truck: Was it a hate crime?”

It may prove to be in part. A 16-year-old faces a count of “ethnic intimidation,” though authorities said there isn’t enough evidence to make that offense stick against four adults also charged in the attack.

Yet news reports were slower in telling the act of heroism and kindness that crossed racial boundaries. Deborah Hughes, a retired African American nurse who was packing a pistol in the neighborhood she also considered dangerous, shooed away the mob and gave emergency care to Utash seconds before what might have been the final, lethal blows.

“They were fitting to kick him and beat him some more and I told them they are not going to hit him anymore, they are not going to put their feet on him,” Hughes told Detroit’s WWJ radio.

To Utash, she said: “‘You can’t move baby, don’t move. Everything is going to be OK.’”

A CBS affiliate, WWJ ran the story while other media outlets were still focusing on the hate crime aspect. And, if I missed something in my armchair observations of Detroit media from 500 miles away, a minister who has become involved in that city’s efforts at keeping the peace had the same impression.

“Initially, when the story was reported, race wasn’t even mentioned. It was just a man beaten up on the East Side after he accidentally hit a boy,” Pastor David Bullock of Detroit’s Greater St. Matthews Baptist Church said in a telephone interview Easter weekend. “Then the second framing was ‘a white man.’ Then Deborah Hughes emerged as the third incarnation.”

After race was introduced, he said, people of all colors jumped on social media with stereotypes about African Americans’ propensity for violence.

“Even some of the African American ministers’ initial comments were kind of strange,” Bullock said, including one asking, “‘What’s wrong with us?’ Deborah Hughes is black. Nobody said, ‘What’s right with us?’”

Though the circumstances are vastly different, the misplaced self-guilt is reminiscent of the initial condemnation of Shirley Sherrod, the black official forced to resign her U.S. Department of Agriculture post in 2010 after a politically motivated video showed her admitting discrimination against a white farm family — until the whole tape revealed she’d gone out of her way to help them.

As for whether or not the Utash attack was primarily motivated by race, Bullock noted it was not premeditated.

“They saw him hit an African American child, accidentally, and one can do the reasoning and see they might respond aggressively. Is that a hate crime? I don’t think so. Did race play a factor in that? Of course. The media doesn’t always get a chance to parse these things out.”

While they’re working on it, Bullock — who grew up in Roxbury — is doing his part, with his congregation holding a special collection for Utash the Sunday after the attack. He also organized an Easter Sunday benefit concert at his father’s church for victims of similarly senseless violence.

Attending were the families of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old black woman shot to death last fall by a white man when she knocked on his door seeking help after a car accident, and the recent, presumably black-on-black deaths of Darryl Smith, 19, caught in gang gunfire, and Eric Miles, 38, killed at another Detroit gas station.

And Joe Utash, the beaten man’s son, and his girlfriend and young daughter were also there — though they were at the hospital earlier in the day and came late, Bullock said. A newspaper report the next morning erroneously said they hadn’t shown up.

Because, like Bullock says, it can take a while to parse these things out.

Robin Washington is a research fellow for the San Francisco-based think tank Be’chol Lashon and a former managing editor of the Banner. He lives in Duluth, Minn.

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