Columbia County has been blessed with good race relations.
It's one of the legacies of former School Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard, who used the force of his personality to convince mostly white taxpayers to improve black schools in the 1950s. Blanchard later presided over a remarkably smooth desegregation of the county's school system.
There have been a few bumps in the road since then, but for the most part racial strife has been rare here. Lately, though, a couple of incidents have shaken the confidence of some people in the black community that they're getting fair treatment.
Topping the list is the teen sex case involving Greenbrier High students. Six teens were involved in a late-night party on Sept. 17. Four of them were charged as juveniles and stayed in the custody of their parents, while two were arrested, charged as adults, thrown in jail and kicked out of school.
The four white teens are charged as juveniles. The two black teens are charged as adults.
On the surface, that looks mighty unfair " and many in the black community are saying so. The father of Greenbrier scholar-athlete Reggie Rice calls the charges "racially motivated," especially when, of the three boys involved, only the two black teens were charged with felonies.
"Why (does) the black guy get blown-up rape and the white guy get statutory rape?" asks Army Staff Sgt. Reginald Rice Jr.
Rice is accused of rape and aggravated child molestation, while 17-year-old Shad Harris is charged with three counts of aggravated child molestation. Both are charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors for giving alcohol to the girls.
The tough charges are a result of state law, which mandates those penalties when the girls are under 15 and there is a three-year difference in age between them and the offender. The "white guy" who was involved is only 16; the age difference is less than three years, so he's charged only with statutory rape.
That's a race-neutral explanation. But what's confusing the issue is that the three females also have been charged with misdemeanor fornication. How, many are asking, can someone be both a victim and a perpetrator?
Superior Court Judge Duncan Wheale has made it clear he'd like all the charges to be handled in juvenile court. It wouldn't get Rice or Harris off the hook, but it would at least restore a perception of fairness to the case and help defuse the racial overtones.
A group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Columbia County also sees racial motives in charges resulting from a brawl after the Oct. 14 Evans vs. Lakeside football game.
Members of the group contend black students and football players from Lakeside were ill-treated and arrested, while white students from Evans were allowed to leave.
School and law enforcement officials need to get to the bottom of this case before it leads to the sort of simmering resentment that divides a community.
Overall, Columbia County has done a good job of dodging racial disharmony. If our community is to keep this record up, it must not dodge accountability when uncomfortable questions arise.
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