When Yusuf Hawkins was harassed, shot, and killed by a gang of thugs, I was appalled. Somehow, I thought other people who purport to care about crime in the streets might also be appalled.
Here was a young man, on his way to look at a used car, minding his own business, who was set upon and killed by a pack of young hoods. Like the young investment banker who was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park, Hawkins was an innocent victim of a vicious crime. On that score, he could have been any of us.
But, of course, Hawkins was not any of us. He was black—and he was killed because, and only because, he was black. That has made all the difference.
About this incident, politicians and pundits who rail against other urban crimes are silent at best. George F. Will has written nothing—a dramatic contrast to his (in my mind, correct) condemnation of the Central Park muggers as "evil." Pat Buchanan has written nothing, though he did criticize on TV the people who marched to protest the killing. President Bush has said nothing.
This utter lack of concern is nearly as appalling as the crime itself. It indicates that these men have in fact been using crime as a political issue only to pander to racism—not because they really care about crime. Their liberal critics appear to be right.
Yusuf Hawkins himself was the victim of specific individuals. But our public discussion of race, and of race and crime, is the victim of ideas.
The first, and most pernicious, is that race relations are really about crime and that crime is a racial issue. This idea follows from a darker assumption: that blacks in general, and black men in particular, are criminals. As far as I can tell, this assumption is held nearly universally by whites living in and around northeastern cities.
It is true that blacks make up a disproportionate number of the people arrested in this country—29 percent, although they compose only 12 percent of the population as a whole. But the odds that any given black person is a criminal are miniscule, especially since repeat offenders account for many arrests. (And, of course, blacks are also disproportionately likely to be the victims of crimes, particularly crimes committed by other blacks.)
Yet many whites have developed habits of mind designed to reinforce their picture of blacks as criminals and law-abiding blacks as exceptions to that rule. When I was first out of school, I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in Philadelphia. One evening, my purse was snatched by a group of teenagers. The first question most people asked me was, Were they black?
Since there were no white teenagers in the neighborhood, the answer isn't too hard to figure out. And I could all but hear the gears turning in my questioners' minds, as they tallied up another piece of anecdotal evidence that blacks are criminals.
Yes, the purse snatchers were black. But so was the jogger who pursued them along with the police. So was the neighbor who walked by and lent sympathy. So was the security guard in my building who told me sternly but caringly that I ought to be more cautious; he wouldn't let his wife go out like that, with her purse dangling loosely by her side. None of these people, or the many other law-abiding black individuals I came into contact with every day, counted in my questioners' calculations.
The second, related assumption is that neighborhoods have value over and above individuals. Some people defend Hawkins's killers on the grounds that they were protecting their turf against an outsider and that such actions, while unattractive, are necessary to preserve neighborhoods from crime and disruption. Neighborhoods become defined by their exclusion of outsiders. They shouldn't have killed Hawkins, one Bensonhurst woman reportedly commented, just roughed him up a bit.
This is obscene. In a free country, any individual must have the absolute right to walk freely down any street—or, for that matter, to buy or rent a home from any willing owner—in any neighborhood. That, as some defenders of the Bensonhurst killers aver, a white person might not be safe strolling through Harlem does not justify what happened in Bensonhurst. It merely demonstrates that black criminals in Harlem are no better than white criminals in Bensonhurst. Crime is a lamentable fact; it is not a justification for more crime.
The third assumption is that victimhood justifies violence against innocent bystanders. This idea has two formulations: The Bensonhurst version—because affirmative action is unfair, whites are victims and can be excused for attacking blacks. And the Spike Lee version—because racism is evil, blacks are victims and can be excused for attacking whites. Neither makes much sense. Both are used by violent individuals to lend a patina of political respectability and morality to grossly immoral conduct.
All of these assumptions, and many others that poison the discussion of race in this country, share two characteristics: They regard people primarily as members of groups rather than as individuals and they decline to hold individuals responsible for their actions.
It is far easier to lump people into groups than to assess each as an individual. And throughout most of American history that is how public policy has gone. Labeling and classifying—whether to preserve segregation or to fill affirmative action quotas—has been the order of the day.
But this is a nation whose very identity springs from the recognition of the inherent worth and inalienable rights of each individual, as an individual. To create a political order based on group rights betrays our ideals and, ultimately, invites our downfall.
Writing two decades before the Civil War, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that blacks and whites in the South would wind up warring against each other, with one race wiping the other out. (He thought there were too few blacks in the North to generate such conflict.) That it has never come to that is some sort of tribute to our common humanity.
But it is tragic that in 1989, a young black entrepreneur—a Republican, the graduate of elite schools, a supporter of the National Rifle Association, the friend and indeed boyfriend of whites—would find it necessary to write in the New York Times: "I used to ignore the menacing glances of police officers, the contemptuous glares of average white citizens, being followed by security guards whenever I enter a store and my inability to flag down a taxi in Manhattan. But I cannot help wondering now what brought about this miserable state of affairs. Why is this happening to me in my own beloved country? Do white people secretly aspire to intern us all in jails or concentration camps—to permanently do away with us?"
Devin S. Standard, and others who wonder the same thing, deserve to be told no. And they deserve to be told no not merely by people who want to use Bensonhurst to attack social-spending cuts or to condemn Supreme Court justices who take a dim view of affirmative action. They deserve to be told it by George Bush and George Will and Pat Buchanan. And by me.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Black and White Issues".