It would be a formidable task, if not an impossible one, to attempt to collect all the books and articles written on race and racism in America. To be sure, the twin topics of race and racism tend to be highly subjective ones, depending on the attitudes of the writer. Personal racial experiences, and one’s racial identity play an important role in an individual’s interpretation of not only why something happened, but even what happened, when racial incidents occur. Where do my sympathies lie? Can I be totally objective in assessing the facts of a case? What are the facts, and how do they affect my feelings about race in America and my own attitudes toward those of another race? Often, what we believe to be the “facts” of the case differ because we tend to be intuitive about what the “evidence” means. What may seem to one person to be an objective piece of evidence, may seem tainted or plotted to a person who believes in a police conspiracy.
Racial mistrust in America is certainly nothing new. One hundred fifty years ago, French observer to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, stated, “The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory.” He went on to make comments that seem as appropriate in the America of the twenty-first century as they did when they were written: “The danger of a conflict between the white and black inhabitants perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream.” Fifty years ago, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, in his classic study of race in America, “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” concluded that race is the primary factor that helps determine a person’s future economic and social status. The racism and discrimination Myrdal documented in his book poses an obvious “dilemma” for the United States, since our founding principles of equal justice and equal opportunities are supposedly the birthright of all Americans, regardless of race. In the courtroom, Myrdal reported that a Negro is “far more severely punished than a white man for the same offense,” and found that “where crimes of Negro against Negro came to court the offender was dismissed lightly, but that in Northern areas there was less differentiation on the basis of race.” (Quoted in Greenberg, page 334) Certainly, there have been gains for black Americans since 1944, when Myrdal wrote his book; few would argue, however, that equal treatment of the races has become reality, by any stretch of the imagination.
Historically, race consciousness has always existed for black Americans; to identify a positive concept of self has been part of the struggle for equal treatment under the law. In 1941, the “Brown American Magazine” reported the following: “Trying to be black and an American is such a complicated task, it’s remarkable that so many of us have kept at it as long as we have.” (Quoted in Berry, page 388) According to W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century, to be called “black” was to be despised, corrupt and evil; many blacks, he said unconsciously “glorified whiteness . . . because the world had taught them to be ashamed of their color, because for 500 years men had hated and despised and abused black folk.” (Quoted in Berry, page 395) This abuse of power by whites, especially in the South, resulted in intimidation and fear among black Americans. To quote a modern black social historian, Andrew Hacker, “Given the panoply of power (blacks) faced, the most common posture was resignation: a minority held down and apart with barely an avenue of appeal.” Acceptance? How long would fear of the police and separate treatment under the law continue to promote these feelings of fear and frustration? How long would it be before black Americans would be guaranteed the full citizenship described in the Fourteenth Amendment? Would the federal courts and Congress ever cut the legally imposed chains of segregation that imprisoned so many African American citizens?
Then, during the fighting of World War II, when black men gained the right to fight and die on an equal basis with white members of the armed forces, and black civilians were offered jobs by employers who had previously excluded them, the ball of economic opportunity and social equality began to roll in earnest. When North Carolina college students in the early 1960’s demanded the right to order a sandwich at a local lunch counter, and black citizens began to march to demand Constitutional rights to vote, and Martin Luther King invited whites to join in this nonviolent protest, more white Americans saw these activities as legitimate and responsible. A number of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940’s and 1950’s, including, “Brown v. Board of Education” appeared to put the moral and legal forces of government squarely behind the civil rights movement, right into the 1960’s. Until the mid-1960’s at least, civil rights for black citizens was a cause for all Americans of good will, black and white alike.
Next came the looting and burning of the riots in Watts, Detroit and Newark. The police and National Guard were called in and many blacks lost their lives. With the advent of “Black Power” and separatist demands by members of the Black Panther Party, there was an irrevocable split in the so-called “Negro Movement.” White attitudes began to change as black demands became more militant. Inflammatory rhetoric flowed from newspapers such as Black America the newspaper of the Revolutionary Action Movement, which reported that its purpose was “to present a revolutionary program of national liberation and self-determination for the African captives enslaved in the racist United States of America, to forge a revolutionary unity among peoples of African descent . . . and to fight for the liberation of oppressed peoples everywhere.” (Quoted in Berry, page 420) The black historian concludes that after the riots of the mid-1960’s:
“ . . . race relations never returned to their former plane. . . . (Whites) saw a resentful and rebellious multitude, intent on imposing it’s presence on the rest of the society. Blacks were seen as trying to force themselves into places where they were not wanted or for which they lacked the competence. As the 1970s started, so came a rise in crimes, all too many of them with black perpetrators. . . . Worsening relations between the races were seen as largely due to the behavior of blacks, who had abused the invitations to equal citizenship white America had been tendering.” (Hacker, page 22)
With the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968, most hopes for the success of an integrated nonviolent end to black oppression ended. By the early 1970s, the police and the FBI’s attacks on Black Panthers, harassment of Black Muslims and wiretaps of other black nationalist groups were proving successful in destroying their effectiveness. There was widespread despair within the black community and disillusionment among whites. Racism’s ugly head was rearing itself once again spawned by violence and resulting in mistrust and fear.
Further questions of race are refused by statistics generated by our criminal justice system. When people worry about “crime,” they worry about violent crime—rape, robbery, assault and murder. Although blacks make up 12 to 13 percent of the general population, in almost all categories of crime the crime rates for blacks are disproportional to their share of the population. (see Table 1, “Arrests, Percentages and Proportions,” below) Blacks account for over half of the arrests for wrongful death and close to half in cases of rape; and account for 55.1% of all murder and manslaughter arrests. Of all robberies reported, blacks account for 60% of them, a number 5 times greater than for whites. Can students suggest reasons for this disparity in numbers? Furthermore, statistics show that more blacks are victimized by black robbers than are whites; although the crime of robbery is the one where more whites are victimized by blacks than other crimes. (Hacker, pp. 187-188) Why are whites often victims of this type of “inter-racial crime”? Are these economic-motivated crimes also racially motivated? These questions we will return to when we consider the case of Bernard Goetz.
Why are black Americans responsible for so large a ratio of crimes involving violence or the threat of violence? One explanation may be economic: Census figures show that blacks, aged 25-30 have a median income of $14,754, a third lower than for whites, who earn $20,436. In 1993, the unemployment rate for black men in their mid-to-late twenties was 12.4%, nearly double the white rate of 6.8%, and does not include those in prison (nearly 1 million individuals) or those no longer looking for work. Although criminals come from all levels of society, thieves who commit so-called “white collar crime” (who are more often white than black) have a wider choice of crimes with less chance of detection and arrest. Does economics play a significant role in the commission of crimes, especially potentially violent ones? Are people who are victims of poverty more or less likely to commit illegal acts? These are excellent debate questions for students to discuss, especially in light of the statistics available. (See Tables 2 and 32 “Violent Crimes By Race,” below)
In the past, most homicide victims are the same race as the assailant; furthermore, most slayings involved acquaintances or relatives, resulting in many more solved crimes. Today, however, many more murders occur during robberies, which means that many more people are killing strangers, so that many more of these homicides are unsolved. In racial terms, there has been a sharp rise in black youths killing each other, go that homicide has become this group’s foremost cause of death. These tragic deaths are only part of the story, though. There is also a fear of police overstepping their authority and kill members of the black community or members of white gangs do the same. Two examples from the 1980s follow to illustrate the climate of fear that often exists.