Soundings

Tamar Jacoby
Race and Truth
Spring 1999

The setting was a small liberal-arts college, the subject was race relations, and just a week or so after the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the audience—mostly minority students—was outraged. Little was known then about the facts of the case, other than that the four policemen were white, Diallo black, and that some ghastly mistake had been made in the vestibule where the West African peddler died in a rain of bullets. Still, the students felt they knew all they needed to know: they were convinced that the shooting had been racially motivated.

But the students' reaction wasn't unusual, of course. Blacks and sympathetic whites across New York were saying the same thing that week at angry downtown demonstrations. But what made the campus meeting so poignant, and so upsetting, was the way these students had personalized the Diallo story. For them, the episode spoke a kind of psychological "truth" that nullified any facts about the case.

The most incensed insisted that the officers had acted in cold blood, sadistically targeting an innocent black man. Others could see the possibility of human error—that the police might have mistaken Diallo for the armed black rapist they were seeking—and they were willing to concede, albeit hesitantly, that the cops might not have acted out of conscious bigotry. But this group, too, thought that racism had played a role: the unconscious "institutional racism" of "the white system."

"How do you explain that 100 percent of the civilians killed by New York police in the past five years were people of color?" one young man demanded. In fact, the figure is 85 percent—a number roughly comparable with the percentage of New York crime that involves blacks and Hispanics (84 percent of the murder victims and 92 percent of the homicide arrests in this period). But this hardly mattered to the angry student or his friend, who answered that official crime figures were inherently unreliable—a reflection of the way racist white police arrest blacks disproportionately. Student after student stood up to make similar emotional claims and to equate what had happened to Diallo to what they said happens frequently on their campus when security guards stopped minority students to ask them for their I.D. "How can you talk about integration?" one Hispanic youth asked. "We can't even walk in the same public spaces you do. Diallo just proves what all of us have known in our hearts all along."

It was hard to know what to say. That many of the students were the first in their families to go to college, that several had been recruited through an inner-city outreach program, that a number benefited from sizeable scholarships, and that they were welcomed eagerly on their predominantly white, suburban campus—none of this seemed to matter. Nor did they care that Giuliani administration police tactics had made the city neighborhoods that many of them called home so much safer. Indeed, if 1993 citywide murder rates had remained steady, 2,299 more black New Yorkers and 1,842 more Hispanic New Yorkers would be dead today. Perhaps most troubling, it never occurred to the students that the people whom their anger would hurt most were not their well-intentioned professors or New York police, but themselves. Never mind. When it comes to race, emotion still trumps fact, and to ask for a sense of proportion is to look like just another racist.

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