Wednesday, May 12, 2010

By Embracing Heritage, Horne Helped Us All

 Associated Press
Ms. Horne and Cab Calloway in “Stormy Weather.” The title song became one of her signatures.

By Embracing Heritage, Horne Helped Us All
Could Have Had An Easy Life By Pretending To Be Another Race

May 11, 2010

BY MARY MITCHELL Chicago Sun-Times Columnist

Lena Horne showed the world that black is beautiful. She didn't have to. With her light complexion, high cheekbones, straight hair and sculptured nose, Horne could have passed herself off as anything but black.

Who could have blamed her?

America was an oppressive place for blacks when Horne was growing up.

A white identity was the passport to a life of acceptance and privilege. Had Horne "passed," she would have had an easier time achieving her goals.

But Horne embraced the racial identity she was born into, and during the tumultuous '60s, her stunning beauty was a source of pride for African Americans.

Despite Horne's stardom, her lot really was no different from that of domestics.

Hollywood studios denied her major roles; hotels and restaurants refused her service; success came slower for Horne than it did for women of lesser talent and beauty.

In her career, Horne suffered the same discrimination that kept other blacks from living up to their full potential.

Still, she didn't deny her heritage.

"She refused to accept an artificial pedestal," noted the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "She marched with Dr. King. She was at the March in Washington. She stood with Paul Robeson."

Lena Horne died Sunday at the age of 92.

She will be remembered by many as a Hollywood legend.

To many others, she will be remembered for the love she showed her own.

• • 

Unfortunately, in another story that made headlines last weekend, no one was a hero.

That's because it is hard to justify someone choking a man to death over stolen toothpaste.

Anthony Kyser, a 35-year-old loser, allegedly stole tubes of toothpaste from the CVS Pharmacy in Little Village on Saturday morning.

Kyser was chased from the store by an employee who put the alleged thief in a chokehold.

To make matters worse, Chicago Police said an off-duty Cook County correctional officer was at the scene and witnesses told the Chicago Sun-Times that she drew her weapon on Kyser.

The Chicago Police Department is treating the death as "accidental."

But calling what happened to Kyser accidental sets a dangerous precedent. While I don't have any sympathy for thieves, we can't have store employees running after and choking shoplifters to death.

If the Chicago Police Department appears to sanction such a drastic response, there will likely be more tragic "accidents."

According to statistics from the National Learning & Resource Center, more than $13 billion worth of goods are stolen from retailers. Twenty-five percent of shoplifters are kids.

And shoplifting has long been used by addicts to raise money needed for drugs.

That certainly appears to be the case with Kyser, an unemployed barber.

Kyser's family described him as being "up and down" and having had a drug problem, including drug convictions.

Obviously, the Chicago Police Department doesn't want to penalize the store's employee for trying to stop a thief.

But even trained police officers have rules governing when they can use deadly force.

Given the city's spike in violence, police officers are obviously needed to respond to gun crimes.

Still, Kyser did not hide a bomb on a store shelf. He did not try to rob cashiers or store customers at gunpoint.

If he had done any one of those things, I could understand how a courageous CVS employee felt compelled to chase Kyser all the way into an alley.

But Kyser allegedly stole toothpaste -- a penny-ante crime that shows how low an addict can sink.

Except for the tragic consequences, the store employee's response could have been a scene out of the movies "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" or "Observe and Report."

CVS employees should not be chasing shoplifters into the street. The first time someone is injured, and it turns out that person is innocent of any wrongdoing, lawyers are going to have a field day.

I don't like thieves any more than the next person.

But it should not be open season on petty crooks.

This tragic incident sends the message that when it comes to suspected shoplifters, store employees have the right to take matters into their own hands.

That's an attitude the police can ill afford.

We are not a city of vigilantes.

We are a city of laws.

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