The Nation's Pulse

The Girl Who Cried Racism

A textbook case for resentment studies.

By 11.23.09

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Kennett, Missouri, is best known these days as the hometown of pop rock diva Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow and now Heather Ellis. The latter is no rock star, but she is a bona fide celebrity (or one famous for being famous). Ellis, 24, the celebrated Wal-Mart line-cutter, earned her 15-minutes of celebrity when she accused a Wal-Mart shopper, cashier, assistant store manager, security guard, and Kennett police officers of racism. By the second day of the trial -- which ended last Friday in a plea bargain -- it was clear from mainstream media coverage that pretty much the whole town of Kennett was racist.

The facts were these: Ellis, then a college student, was in line at the local Wal-Mart, when she decided her lane was moving too slowly. She then joined her cousin in a faster moving lane, cutting in front of a line of waiting customers. The customer she cut directly in front of, Teresa Kinder, objected, especially when Ellis repeatedly shoved Kinder's merchandise back down the conveyer belt. The assistant store manager and a security guard arrived and asked Ellis to leave. When she refused, police were called. Ellis was later placed under arrest, and charged with disturbing the peace, trespassing, resisting arrest, and felony assault of police officers.

Not surprisingly, there are two very different versions of what happened. Ellis and her aunt say she was pushed by Ms. Kinder and called racial slurs. They say police roughed her up, tore her jacket, and told her to "go back to the ghetto." Police, store management and witnesses, meanwhile, say that Ellis was belligerent, and that she kicked officer Albert Fisher in the shin and hit Sgt. Joe Stewart in the mouth, splitting his lip. Whatever the truth, it is obvious that a minor instance of rude behavior and bad manners escalated into a felony assault on a peace officer.

The mainstream media was quick to indict Kennett as a racist community. An ABC News headline read: "Heather Ellis Could Face Prison Time After Cutting the Line at Walmart." Not for assaulting police officers, mind you, but for "cutting the line." CNN's Randi Kaye went after the entire town of Kennett, accusing it of being "a community known for racial tension." CNN showed more bias when it suggestively referred to Kennett's "predominantly white police department." (In fact, Kennett has two minority cops, which accurately reflects the percentage of minorities in the town.) Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Christian Leadership Conference noted that the town's police have been accused of racial profiling minority drivers, a charge that has been leveled, one time or another, at just about every American city and town with minorities.

Needless to say, racial tensions exploded after Ellis made her accusations. White supremacist groups began slithering into town to spread their hateful propaganda, while big name minority activists flew in from New York and Washington DC, to further heighten tensions. Ms. Ellis's father, a local Baptist preacher, called the trial a "big, racial discrimination cover-up," which seems an odd comment since trials are supposed to promote justice, not cover up the truth. (Perhaps the state judicial system is racist too?) Ellis and her various coalitions and supporters quickly hired the top criminal lawyers in St. Louis: Scott Rosenblum and T.J. Hunsaker. When asked by reporters to comment on the charge of racism, Rosenblum would say only: "I'm not going to go there."

The fact that Rosenblum and Hunsaker had to settle for a plea bargain suggests Ellis didn't have a prayer in beating the assault charge, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. In the end, Ellis was convicted of the lesser charges of resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. The plea bargain stipulates she must attend two hours of anger management class.

"MANNERS ARE OF MORE importance than laws," wrote Edmund Burke. "Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend." But good manners are today considered passé, a quaint and spurious remnant of our dark past. So many of today's young people simply do not care how their rude or anti-social behavior affects others. It is almost like no one else exists but himself or herself. I experience this form of anti-social behavior on a daily basis, whether it is the young hoodlums in the street outside my window playing loud and obscene music at 3 a.m. or young people talking loudly and obscenely on their cell phones during a movie. And you can see where they get it. I have attended theater productions where adults bring their toddlers and allow them to chat endlessly throughout the performance, no doubt finding this behavior "cute."

If our young are not taught good manners, they are well-schooled in resentment studies, during which they learn the various benefits of victimhood and the importance of political correctness. Good manners will never get anyone 15 minutes of fame, but bad manners and crying racism is almost guaranteed to buy you fifteen minutes and then some.

The tragedy is that by rushing to Ellis's defense, by excusing her actions, and by concocting blanket racism charges against an entire community, the "various coalitions" and civil rights groups have done great damage to the laudable goal of combating racial prejudice.

Perhaps now that the rock star has returned home to Louisiana, the Ellis-and-mainstream-media-created racial tensions will cool and Kennett, Missouri, can get back to being what it was: a normal southern town trying to deal with serious economic problems.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.