A Tale of Two Cities: “Rational” Racism, Amadou Diallo and the Rest of Us

Published as a ZNet Commentary, March 22, 2000

They are two places that appear wholly unrelated to one another, and yet, as will be seen, share quite a bit in common. On the one hand, we have New York City, whose police, thanks to acquittals in the Amadou Diallo shooting trial, have been given carte blanche to shoot black men, so long as they’re encountered in “bad” neighborhoods, and happen to resemble (if only in skin tone) a suspected criminal.

From the outset, the officers’ defense in this case was classic racist fare: namely, that they feared for their lives, given the neighborhood, and of course, that “fitting of the description” so familiar sounding to men of color who have experienced the Street Crimes Unit firsthand. “Rational discrimination” is what Dinesh D’Souza called it in The End of Racism, wherein he claimed it’s acceptable for taxi drivers, employers and cops to treat blacks differently, and in a discriminatory fashion, since they have higher crime rates.

Seen by many as pseudo-academic drivel at the time, D’Souza’s analysis is now parroted by juries and syndicated columnists, who in the wake of the verdicts wrote that the shooting was understandable and that any rational person would have done the same, given the “thugs” found in neighborhoods like Diallo’s. Mona Charen went so far as to say Diallo basically died for the sins of his black brethren: a claim so putrid as to merit nothing in the way of intellectual response.

So much for the conservative principle of “personal responsibility,” which conveniently goes out the window if applying it might interfere with the prerogatives of whiteness: in this case, the prerogative to label a group deviant, and treat members of that group on the basis of the designation. Funny, coming from folks who squeal about affirmative action because it treats folks on the basis of group membership. Note: at least affirmative action never killed anyone. Would that the NYPD could say the same.

As for the second, seemingly unrelated locale, consider this: recent news reports note that Forsythe County, Georgia (just outside Atlanta) is now the fastest growing community of its size in the U.S. If this honor had been bestowed upon any other place, it is unlikely I would have written about it. But Forsythe County is special to me, because it was the first place I was required to spill blood (not by choice) in the fight for racial equity. In 1987, civil rights demonstrators, myself included, marched in the county to protest the fact that Forsythe whites had kept any blacks from moving into the area for over a half-century. During our demonstration, many of us were struck by spit, sticks, and rocks, the latter of which caused a gash in the back of my head that took several days to heal. Now, thirteen years later, this county, which still has only a handful of black residents and remains home to many of the bigots who attacked us, is the hot place to be: leading one to wonder, just what would draw people to Forsythe, given this history?

And the answer is the same thing that causes white cops in the Bronx to shoot a black man who reaches for his wallet because they assume he has a gun: namely, “rational” racism. In Georgia, this means whites who are fleeing the “chocolate city” of Atlanta, to find what they refer to as “good schools” and “safe neighborhoods,” by which they mean, but are not honest enough to admit, white schools and white neighborhoods. In the lexicon of American racism, “good” and “safe” have become synonymous with whites and “bad” and “dangerous” synonymous with blacks, and this is a truism in Georgia, New York, and all places in-between.

For Forsythe to be the fastest growing area of its kind in the country is not a race-neutral human interest story: not with the county’s background; a background about which most adults moving there from surrounding cities and suburbs are surely aware. This place is known to be white, not by accident, but on purpose; and yet, there they come, with their families in tow, to find that “safe” place to live. No one asks if it’s safe for folks with dark skin, or whites who speak out against racism. We already know the answer to that question, but that’s not a safety about which the residents of Forsythe are likely concerned.

One would have thought that Gwinnett County, which actually borders Atlanta, unlike Forsythe, which is about 30 miles away, was white enough. After all, this is an area where citizens voted against connecting with Atlanta by commuter rail, despite the fact that with their vote, they were consigning themselves to continued long commute times and interminable traffic jams (But at least they wouldn’t be making it easier for black Atlantans to take advantage of the two-way nature of public transport, and perhaps hustle it out to the ‘burbs themselves). Such is the price white folks will pay to live apart from black and brown people: longer commutes, and the corresponding higher gas and car maintenance bills, to say nothing of costlier mortgages. Such is the “rationality” of our racism.

And yes, I said “our” racism because despite what folks tell you, it isn’t just “other” whites who think this stuff about “good and safe” places, or are predisposed to view blacks as violent. So ingrained is the notion of danger as black and blacks as dangerous, that following the verdict in the Diallo case, the most common thing discussed among whites (and this was true for liberal and left-leaning whites as well as conservatives) was whether or not the verdict would touch off rioting in the black community.

Now think about that, and ask if you, even for a moment, wondered this same thing; and then ask what the answer says about the way this racist mentality has affected us. After all, to jump so quickly to the concern about “rioting” in this case, is to assume that black and brown folks can’t control their anger; it is to believe they are perpetually on a powder-keg, just waiting to burn shit to the ground, and all it takes to set ’em off is one more thing. But, these same folks live with constant indignities meted out by the justice system, economic system, housing, financial and educational institutions of this society, such that “one more thing” happens every day before lunch. If blacks were so crazy they rioted every time they found themselves on the short end of a jury verdict, there’d be no property left to burn.

Fact is, black and brown riots are rare and always have been. But whites have developed our own way of rioting that is nothing if not frequent: namely, to move far from black and brown people, and empower “our” police to do whatever it takes to “protect and serve” us. Instead of destroying black property the way we did back in the day, when “they forgot their place,” we just make sure their property won’t be anywhere near ours: and we do this with zoning laws, and lending discrimination under the guise of actuarial analysis, and blockbusting, and de facto redlining. Over half the counties in the nation have less than 250 blacks, and over 80 percent of the country’s whites live in communities with hardly any people of color around them–and it wouldn’t be that way if at some level we didn’t prefer that it be so.

Consider suburban whites in Minneapolis, fairly liberal by national standards. In a 1993 survey, two-thirds of them said white suburban kids should be sent to predominantly black urban schools. But only seven percent said they’d be willing to send their own child. Or Metairie, Louisiana, where over a third of all whites admit they moved to the area, just outside of New Orleans, to escape blacks. Or Montgomery County, Maryland, where poor whites, according to the Washington Post, have sacrificed coveted slots on public housing wait lists, just to avoid being placed in a mostly black development. Or Matteson, Illinois, where an increasing number of black residents prompted a mass exodus of whites, despite the fact that crime declined, schools improved and property values grew throughout the transition period.

Two-thirds of whites say they prefer to live in a community with no more than ten percent people of color, and a Russell Sage Foundation study found that whites typically consider even lower-income white communities with lower housing values, preferable to higher income, more prosperous communities with large percentages of people of color.

And all of it is justified and rationalized on the same grounds: fear of crime; fear of bad schools; fear, plain and simple. The same fear that the Albany jury ratified as a legitimate defense for murder by police; the same “rational” racism that started as mere theory, and has now proven fatal. And so long as we make excuses for the fear, and act on the basis of it, and fail to challenge it in others, and ourselves, we’ll be just as guilty as those officers who killed Diallo. And we’ll have little basis upon which to condemn them, acting as they did on the same impulses which so often animate us all.

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