Don't Blame America for Cosby Killing


The day after 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant Mikail Markhasev was found guilty of the murder of Ennis Cosby, USA Today published an article by educator and producer Camille Cosby, titled "America taught my son's killer to hate blacks."

"Presumably, Markhasev did not learn to hate black people in his native country, the Ukraine, where the black population was near zero," wrote Mrs. Cosby, asserting that "racism and prejudice are omnipresent and eternalized in America's institutions." Among her examples: we are taught to respect slave-owners such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; the dictionary defines "black" as "hostile" or "unpleasant" (which is true in most languages and surely has to do with fear of the dark, not skin color); and the absurd claim that when the Voting Rights Act expires in 2007, Congress will decide "whether African-Americans will be allowed to vote."

One hesitates to criticize a parent who has suffered a terrible loss. But when a mother's grief impels her to make public charges endorsed by some other prominent African-Americans (such as Harvard medical school professor Alvin Poussaint), others must throw water on her inflammatory accusations.

There is no clear evidence that Markhasev was driven by racial anger when he shot Cosby on a dark road while the latter was changing a tire on his Mercedes-Benz. According to trial testimony, he told a friend that he "shot a nigger"; but he also wrote in a jailhouse letter that it was "a robbery gone bad." Whatever the motive, however, can we assume that an immigrant from the former Soviet Union could only have learned racial hatred in America? As a Russian immigrant who came to the United States as a teenager, I can attest to the opposite.

When I was leaving the Soviet Union in 1980, some of my classmates—mostly children of educated professionals in Moscow—asked how I could go to a country with so many blacks. A few girls taunted me about marrying a black man and having black babies. These attitudes were generally accepted at the time, and little has changed since.

I remember nasty comments about African exchange students attending Soviet universities. A vicious joke which I shall not dignify by repeating it depicted Africans as tree-dwelling monkeys. I was saddened, but not surprised, by recent reports of skinhead attacks on black U.S. Embassy staffers and other African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. Such violence is not new. Growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, I heard about brutal attacks on African students, especially those who showed interest in Russian women.

What can account for anti-black bias in a country with almost no black population? As the history of anti-Semitism shows, prejudice can thrive even when its target is a barely visible presence. And in the former Soviet Union, there was fertile soil for such prejudice.

Under the cover of official rhetoric about equality and "friendship of the peoples," often contrasted with the horrors of racism in the capitalist West, the Soviet Union was a hotbed of ethnic hostilities. An international poll cited in Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's "America in Black and White" found that in 1991, a couple of years after Markhasev's family left the Soviet Union, more than 40 percent of Russians and Ukrainians held an unfavorable opinion of Azerbaijanis. (A mere 13 percent of white Americans expressed an unfavorable opinion of blacks.)

These animosities were never confronted or examined in the public arena, and not just because the Soviet state was anxious to maintain the façade of ethnic harmony. It helped to cultivate such attitudes, just as it did anti-Semitism. The Communist régime needed scapegoats who could be blamed for the food shortages and the undeniable fact that the workers' paradise had not materialized. It's only in the post-Communist era that Russian society has begun to talk, fitfully, about the disease of ethnic bigotry.

True, blacks were hardly the primary targets of hatred in the ex-Soviet Union. But it seems likely that prejudice transfers easily from one group to another. The leap from hating dark-skinned ethnics such as the Azerbaijanis or the Chechens to hating blacks may be particularly easy. Indeed, a common slur used against these groups is "chernozhopiy"—literally "black-assed."

In my eighteen years in the United States, I have heard racist comments about blacks far less often from native-born Americans than I have from Russian immigrants—especially those recently arrived. Once immigrants have spent some time around Americans—particularly if they have school-age children, who quickly begin to rebuke adults for racist comments—they often modify their attitudes or, at least, realize that bigotry is socially unacceptable. People don't learn to hate blacks in America; they learn to be tolerant.

It would be unfair to single out immigrants from the former Soviet Union as racists. As data cited by the Thernstroms show, prejudice is far more common in both Eastern and Western Europe than in the U.S. Large percentages of the majority population in France express unfavorable views of North Africans; in Germany, they dislike Poles and Turks; Hungarians are prejudiced against Romanians.

Race is a uniquely painful dilemma in America. But this country has also done more than any other to confront and combat prejudice. When a guest on a CNN talk show disputed Mrs. Cosby's claim of omnipresent racism, Dr. Poussaint cited polls in which most whites agree that racism still exists. Yet this very sentiment—that racism is a problem—is not a sign of a truly racist society.

Yes, there are serious racial problems in America (though respect for Benjamin Franklin is certainly not among them). We need to continue repairing the racial rifts. But the kind of rhetoric used by Mrs. Cosby can only have the opposite effect.

Ms. Young is vice president of the Women's Freedom Network and author of "Growing Up in Moscow" (Ticknor & Fields, 1989).