Personal Statement: Scott Ellsworth


Published April 4, 2010

Like many new teachers, I am constantly seeking ways to get my students to engage with the material and to bring the problems of the real world into the often-artificial confines of the classroom.

Here at the University, where I teach a course called “Crime, Race, and the Law,” I’ve had an easy time of it. My students are bright, alert and open to new ideas. But during the winter 2009 semester, they also learned an unexpected lesson, one they are not likely to soon forget.

In my classes, my students and I grapple with the complex ways that race impacts the nation’s criminal justice system. And two semesters ago, we enlisted the help of a number of guest speakers, including a federal prosecutor, a retired judge, a parole officer and a trio of public defenders. But none of our visitors had been as eagerly awaited as our last scheduled guest, a young man known as Antonio Phelps.

A minor character in “Getting Ghost,” Luke Bergmann’s book about African-American drug dealers in Detroit, Antonio grew up along the grim streets of the city’s west side, a poverty-ravaged moonscape of single family homes and vacant lots, shuttered schools and shattered dreams.

In a city whose public school system graduates less than half of its students, Antonio had started dealing drugs by his thirteenth birthday, and by the time he turned twenty-one, he had been in and out of both juvenile lock-up and adult prison.

Free once again, Antonio had been looking forward to his upcoming visit to Ann Arbor. But as it turned out, he wouldn't be coming after all.

Like many newly released ex-convicts, Antonio had found his previous lifestyle to be either too alluring, or, in a city where unemployment hovers at around 30 percent and jobs for convicted felons are almost impossible to find, practically irreplaceable.

Last spring, he had apparently been dealing drugs again in his old neighborhood when he was informed that a reliable customer was waiting for him at a nearby street corner. Instead of finding the customer, Antonio and a female companion — a young woman whom, it seems, had merely been looking for a lift to a nearby grocery store — found only death.

Shot twice in the head, undoubtedly by rival dealers, Antonio died instantly.

As with two-thirds of all homicides in Detroit, Antonio’s murder will likely never be officially solved — a chilling reality that the city’s overwhelmingly African-American population is all too familiar with.

But white Detroiters living in the suburbs, on the other hand, probably won’t hear of it at all. In the suburban editions of the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press that I picked up the next day, the only crime within the city limits that received any attention was one involving the body of a young white woman found inside an abandoned house.

But the flipside — that is, had Antonio’s likely murderers been white — is equally unsettling. Unlike the case of Oscar Grant, the 28-year-old African-American who was shot to death by a white transit officer in Oakland, Calif. on Jan. 1 2009, the murder of Antonio Phelps won’t generate any protest marches or calls for Congressional action.

Unlike the 1999 slaying of Amadou Diallo, it’s unlikely that, a decade later, candidates for public office will be asked for their position on Antonio’s death. Unlike Jasper, Tex., or even Jena, La., the often-deadly streets of the west side of Detroit won’t likely become anyone’s rallying cry.

Instead, the uneasy truth of the matter is that young African-American men killing other young African-American men in the United States isn’t just not news anymore, it has also fallen out of public discourse. Despite the fact that homicide is still the leading cause of death for black boys and men between the ages of 10 and 24 in the United States, we, as a nation, have turned our heads the other way. Consumed by other problems, we now have other things on our mind.

My students certainly do. With the semester winding down, and signs of spring finally starting to appear across campus, they have already started turning their thoughts to graduation and summer jobs, law school and spring football.

But a late young drug dealer named Antonio Phelps — someone that my students had read about but will never meet — will leave them with one final tutorial, an object lesson about how the nation sometimes responds to some of its most intractable problems.

It’s called silence.

— Scott Ellsworth is a lecturer in the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.