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Not everybody sees it that way. There are those who know him well who say he has more smarts than he lets on, and that he's a clever political manipulator who plays dumb when things get hot for him.
Whichever impression is more accurate, he has a useful role as an activist. He's passionate and outspoken. Some years ago, his relentlessness proved such a thorn in the side of Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega that he had Tillman investigated. Tillman has a hypnotic charisma, and it's hard not to like him, even when you think he's full of it.
And he is. He sees racism in everything. He probably thinks Arizona gets hot in the summer so that black people sweat. When I asked him about the things he said at the news conference, he denied that he said them. "Nowhere have I brought up the issue of racism. Nowhere have I said racism was involved."
When I asked him to respond to William Ponder's comments, he didn't. Instead, he pulled rank on Ponder. "He has no authority to apologize for what I said. He's at the local level. I'm headquarters."
I suggested to Tillman that most people, himself included, are missing the point concerning the murders of the two teenagers: that they are rarely referred to as "teenagers" or "kids" or even "people." Everyone keeps referring to them as "two honor students."
There is implicit racism in this. The reason this case of murder is getting so much media attention, the reason that everyone's so outraged, the reason that even the Arizona Republic's E.J. Montini stopped wringing his hands and described the alleged shooter Purcell as "sewage" that should be "flushed"--the reason, in short, that these killings makes a good story--is that these were two nice, smart, respectable black kids who got killed. Better yet, many of their friends were white.
It's different when poor, uneducated kids shoot at each other. What all the commentators--reporters, columnists, and people like Tillman whose job is to know better--are essentially saying is that it's more wrong to kill middle-class honor students.
I put this to Tillman, and he didn't seem to get it. Instead, he perpetuated it. "Violence keeps growing and growing, until something like this jerks us back to reality. No one cares if poor students and gang-bangers get shot, but now that people of stature died, people are coming together."
Isn't that wonderful.
Oscar Tillman's effect on racism in Arizona may be the opposite of what he intends. Well-meaning or not, when the president of the NAACP is a man who perpetually cries wolf, who sees racism in every incident involving a black person, then instances of real racism are trivialized.
His behavior hands ammunition to those who would like to deny that Arizona has any racism. When the Scottsdale Police Department victimizes people for Driving While Black, or harasses nightclubs that cater to a black clientele, the voice of the NAACP should be--and is--raised in protest.
But when the voice of its president is in a constant state of being raised, it's easy to dismiss reports of genuine racist abuse by shaking your head and saying, "Ah, it's just Oscar going off again."
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: email@example.com