Education, success do not merit moral impunity

Education, success do not merit moral impunity
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A recent Fox News interview with Donna Rice Hughes is a reminder of how easily a person’s education and social standing can be a substitute for character and moral competence. Rice, as you may remember, was a key figure in the political fall of former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who was compelled to withdraw from the 1987 presidential race because of his alleged affair with her. The re-emergence of the issue and re-entrance of Rice to the media spotlight is because of the newly released film, “The Front Runner,” that centers on revelations about the affair.

In the course of her interview, Fox host Martha MacCallum commented that the media have portrayed Rice as “a bimbo” and then countered that image by pointing out that Rice “graduated magna cum laude” — insinuating, perhaps, that Rice could not possibly have been a willing sex object because she is well-educated. That presumption is prevalent throughout the media and society, but is never challenged.


In 1990, the president of American University was forced to resign after it was discovered that he made obscene phone calls to women. A common refrain from those who were interviewed about the scandal: “How could he have done that? He has a Ph.D. from Harvard.”

The public is now familiar with more recent accounts of sexual misconduct by celebrities such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedian and actor Bill Cosby, whose fame, wealth and influence made them untouchable for decades.

But exemption from charges of wrongdoing because of education and social standing does not apply only to such high-profile individuals. It permeates all levels of our society. I vividly recall an incident that occurred early in my professional career.

At the time, when blacks were beginning to move up the ranks in law enforcement, I worked for a prominent national civil rights organization and served as a volunteer with the National Black Police Association. I was contacted by a high-level black official in the Department of Justice who was distressed about something that happened to his daughter, who had taken a position in the Midwest upon graduation from law school. She went on a date with a prominent civil rights leader, who attempted to rape her. When she resisted, he threatened to physically assault her. When she tried to file a criminal complaint, city officials made it clear they would take no action.

She immediately returned home to her parents in Washington, D.C., leaving behind all of her belongings. She wanted to return to retrieve her possessions and close her apartment. I arranged for members of the Black Police Association from that city to meet her plane and provide personal protection for her while others paid a visit to this official to let him know they were protecting her. She filed her complaint and immediately left the city. My intervention was necessary because her predator enjoyed exemption from culpability because of his position.

In the recent criminal case of former Cleveland judge Lance Mason, the assumption that professional success indicates moral quality and irreproachability had fatal consequences. Mason has been arrested for stabbing his wife to death in front of their two daughters. His history of domestic abuse should have signaled a warning that might have protected his wife.

In 2014, he had been convicted of savagely beating his wife to the point where facial reconstruction was required to repair her disfigurement. Though he received a two-year prison sentence, he was released in just nine months and then appointed as the local minority business development director with the support of all of the county’s political elites, including Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeNina Turner launches new campaign for Congress, setting up likely rematch with Shontel Brown The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey MORE (D-Ohio), who wrote a letter on his behalf to the prosecutor in 2015.

Tragically, Mason’s wife must have anticipated the second attack, given that she had secured a commitment from her best friend to adopt her daughters in the event of her death.

As these and other examples illustrate, it is far past time to withdraw protection from responsibility for the consequences of immoral actions of people who have enjoyed the benefits of social status and elite academic institutions.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.