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Tyson's welcome ignores hard facts

I don't know whether Mike Tyson is a rapist.

The question of his guilt or innocence is moot at this point anyway. It doesn't matter. A jury found him guilty, a judge sentenced him and he served his time.

But this I do know: Mike Tyson didn't deserve the parade and street festival that were planned to welcome him home to Harlem this week. Neither did he deserve the rally that was held after the bigger plans were scrubbed.

All he deserved was the same thing any other returning felon gets after he pays his debt in the joint.

Sadly, that may be exactly what he got.

Scale the Tyson rally down for wealth and celebrity, and it is the same kind of hero's welcome that greets ex-cons in neighborhoods somewhere in the United States every day. The 2,000 who turned out for Tyson in Harlem might turn into five or 10 in a St. Petersburg or Tampa neighborhood, but the effect is the same, the motivation is the same.

In either instance _ the Tyson return or the release of a neighborhood drug server _ the former inmate is hailed, proportionally, as someone who got hammered by "the system" but survived. In Tyson's case, a good chunk of Harlem turned out for the rich, famous boxer who generates millions with a few seconds of fighting. Your local thug, with little more going for him than a few hangers-on and a "rep" that is enhanced by successfully completing a prison term, will draw only a few peers, a few women who like his now-obvious toughness, and a few admiring youngsters.

This tendency probably can be seen in all communities, but it is most obvious in predominantly black ones, which this year supplied the nation's state and federal prisons with more than half of their inmates. Last year, when black inmates were 48 percent of the prison population, one out of every four young black men in this country was in prison, on probation or on parole. That ratio surely has grown with the percentage of black inmates rising at a pace that, if it continues through the turn of the century, will find more than half of all black men either in prison or with prison records.

It is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue, certainly not applauded.

Granted, even the agencies that make up "the system" acknowledge their role in the outrageous and escalating numbers. Reports from the General Accounting Office, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and others admit that black criminals cumulatively get stiffer sentences than whites convicted of the same crime. They report that the drug war focuses more attention on street-level crack dealers than on suppliers of powder cocaine, which is necessary for the production of crack.

Consequently, 91.3 percent of those sentenced for federal crack offenses were black, while only 3 percent were white, according to a 1992 study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that 64.4 percent of crack users were white, compared with 26.6 percent who were black.

Given the acknowledged racial inequities in the criminal justice system, the embrace of Tyson _ and the lesser Tysons around the country _ is somewhat understandable. It is not new. Black people have historically circled their wagons to protect each other from the oppression that surrounded them. They have applauded those who challenged the oppression, lionized those who prevailed over it.

Many see Mike Tyson in that vein.

They don't bother to judge his guilt or innocence, but they give great credence to the confessed guilt of the criminal justice system that snagged him and tried to break him.

He survived. He beat the system. It didn't take his manhood. It didn't take his blackness.

Now he is safely home again and they're wrapping their arms around him, saying: "They did you wrong, but they didn't break you. We're behind you."

There's something admirable in all that, I suppose.

But not much.

Convicted criminals deserve a chance to pull their lives together once they've paid their debt to society.

That's all they deserve.

We can't afford to let compassion and loyalty blind us to the fact that with few exceptions, they, not the system, ran up the bill.