Judge Asks Defendants What's Going Wrong in Black America

Every Thursday, Judge Marvin Arrington is on the bench in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta. Every Thursday, he witnesses the parade of felony defendants. Every Thursday, he says the overwhelming majority are black, mostly young, mostly male.

A week-and-a-half ago, as he surveyed the latest round of suspects, Arrington was struck by an impulse.

"I said, 'This is crazy!'" he recalls. "When does this stop?"

Arrington, who is black, suddenly asked the white people in his courtroom, even the defendants' lawyers, to leave the room. They did. He then turned to the group of suspects.

"Thursday after Thursday after Thursday, I continued to see the defendants and 90 to 95 percent of them are Afro-American. I wanted to have a chat with them."

His chat turned out to be a brutally frank lecture, urging the defendants to take stock of their lives and where they're headed.

"I just said to them, 'What in the world is going on in Black America that I do not know about,'" he says. "'You're young, you look intelligent' ... They all applauded, including the parents. Some said, 'Right on, judge.' When they started applauding, I asked them not to. That was not the purpose. The purpose was to tell you to get your act together, to make something of yourself. And I know they can do it."

Arrington came under some criticism for having singled out blacks and dismissing those who were not from his courtroom. He says now that was a "mistake" but adds that he is "at peace" with what he did. The following Thursday, this past week, he gave a similar lecture, this time to all of the defendants -- black, white and Latino.

"You can readjust your life and be somebody, if you want to be somebody," he told them.

Arrington's message of tough love is similar to what actor-comedian Bill Cosby has been preaching in recent years: that blacks should take responsibility for the social ills that afflict America's black communities -- crime, high unemployment, out-of-wedlock child births, the prevalence of fatherless households -- and do something about it,

"We've got to do something," Cosby, author of a book on the same theme called "Come on People," told "Good Morning America Weekend."

"The word crisis means we've got to do something about it. We've got to recognize it," he said.

Some critics say urging blacks to "get your act together" is far too simplistic and unlikely to succeed to turn around lives.

"If you start from a point of view of negativity where you say this is where you're screwing up, this is what's wrong with you, then you're really not helping the problem," says Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University and a top black social commentator.

Arrington has no regrets. He intends to keep going -- next Thursday and the following Thursday and the Thursday after that.

"If what I did is wrong, I don't want to be right," he says.