The writing on the wall

Anna Quindlen

September 10, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

New York -- ON 42ND STREET someone had pasted a poster to a wall. "The Real Last Supper," it said, beneath a standard rendering of Christ and his apostles seated round a table, except that all of them were black.

Down at the corner, a man in African garb was speechifying, spouting a spiel about a conspiracy between Catholics and Jews to maintain the slave trade.

He sounded like Leonard Jeffries, the City College professor who's gotten so much press lately for his views about the innate superiority of black people. One man spit out an epithet as he walked by, an epithet that suggested he might be a fan of Michael Levin, the other City College professor, the man who has written that blacks are less intelligent than whites.

There, in the space of a dozen urban quicksteps, were some of the themes that have emerged in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section since a Hasidic man's car hit a black child and killed him. The demand for stature and respect. The search for someone to blame. The antipathy on both sides.

Being called "nigger" is the least of problems for those who live in any of the city's other battered neighborhoods. For them, racism is not screwy academic theory or graffiti spraypainted on the garage door. It is everyday life.

The filthy projects with the urine smell in the hallways, the block with the crack vials and shell casings on the ground, the kids who live on the streets and sometimes die there -- you can look around at that and say that there is something wrong with you for winding up there.

Or you can take a head count and see that every last person in your neighborhood is black, and you can conclude that an entire group of people has been devalued.

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955, there was still the belief that the end of the Jim Crow laws would mean the end of second-class status. Well, in America's cities we've met the future, and it is the past. Black families live in the urban equivalent of sharecroppers' shacks and their children go to segregated schools.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington has done a statistical profile of America's kids: A black child is three times as likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to die during the first year of life as a white child.

The cries of "Heil Hitler" that greeted the Hasidim in Crown Heights were unforgivable and disgraceful. They were also predictable. The misery that envelops poor black people in this country is so pervasive, so amorphous, that fixing blame is often impossible.

Sometimes it is simplest to look for the white face. Mostly that's The Man, the cops, the only white faces in the neighborhood. In Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing," it was the Italian owner of the pizza parlor. In Crown Heights it was the Hasidim. Everyone knows they are not the problem. The problem is much, much bigger than that.

The black leaders who have emerged aren't even worthy of the name; instead of working on the enormous grievances of everyday life, they turn up only for the TV cameras. They are not the people to talk sense about what really happened in Crown Heights, about the fact that sometimes people drive incompetently and that the law says you can't be indicted for that, even if you kill someone 7 years old.

They rarely show up at the quiet times, and the quiet times are when leadership is needed, to help people take their block into their own hands, to organize places for kids that will keep them off the streets, to organize politically so that someone will finally notice, if not the people, at least their votes.

The rage in Crown Heights is not about the death of one child. And it is not about what we white folks think of as racism: the nasty words, the country-club exclusions. Those are nice, safe problems because we believe they're fixed with the closed mouth, the membership bid for the one black businessman.

What we fail to acknowledge is the fire that has to burn within you if you look around, at your home and your kids and your neighbors, and think that none of you have a hope of anything better. Epithets and graffiti and slurs make people rise up and say "Enough!" But what must you feel if your world is a slur, if you read the handwriting on the wall of your existence and the graffiti seem to say, "Who cares?"

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