Listening for leadership on shootings

March 09, 2000|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

IN THE Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, Joseph Kroll, a middle-aged maintenance man, was busily going about his repair duties in the apartment building where he worked. Joseph Healey, an elderly former Catholic priest, was enjoying a bite to eat at a nearby Burger King restaurant. Emil Sanitelevici, a physics student at the University of Pittsburgh, and two other men were eating at a nearby McDonald's.

Then, in a moment of rage, Ronald Taylor gunned down Mr. Healey, Mr. Kroll and Mr. Sanitelevici and seriously wounded the other two men. These heinous killings almost certainly were racially motivated: Mr. Taylor is black; the three men killed and the two men wounded were white.

But unlike after other hate crimes, no black leader or organization immediately rushed forth to vigorously denounce the shootings. There was no expression of outrage from black communities, and there was no demand that Mr. Taylor be harshly prosecuted under the federal civil rights hate crimes act if he shot the men because they were white.

Worse, some blacks quietly shrugged off the killings with the bitter remark that whites have been killing blacks for years and getting away with it, and that there has been no massive explosion of white outrage at the lax treatment of white killers.

The deafening silence by blacks on this apparent racial outrage against whites instantly drew shouts from some whites that blacks are hypocrites and have a double standard when victims are whites. They're not totally wrong.

Black leaders and organizations should have quickly condemned the shootings.

Blacks must mourn these murders as passionately as they do those of black victims of white attacks and just as passionately call for the harshest punishment of the killer(s). The great strength of the civil rights movement was that it seized and maintained the moral high ground by never stooping to ape the violence of white racists.

But the Taylor shooting spree is deeply troubling for another reason. While it is a grotesque and extreme example of racial violence, it is hardly an aberration. More whites than ever are the targets of racially motivated attacks by blacks. True, some of the attacks against whites by blacks are for their money and valuables. Others are revenge assaults by blacks for real or imagined racial insults. It is equally true that the vast majority of violent crimes against whites are committed by other whites, while the vast majority of violent crimes against blacks are committed by other blacks.

Yet even after discounting crimes that are hastily and erroneously tagged as racially motivated, many blacks do attack whites because they are white. A Justice Department study in 1998 confirmed that nearly 20 percent of the hate crimes examined were committed against whites by black attackers. And the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted that black-on-white violence soared during the 1990s.

A motley collection of white supremacists and rightist extremist groups has eagerly made black-on-white violence a wedge issue in their crusade to paint blacks as the prime racial hatemongers in America. Avowed white supremacist David Duke instantly screamed that Mr. Taylor's carnage proves that whites are under assault from lawless blacks and that the federal government won't protect them.

The New Century Foundation, an ultraconservative think tank, has launched a full-blown national campaign to alert whites to the danger of hate crimes committed by blacks. It uses the issue of black hate crimes to rationalize and bankroll its research into alleged genetic defects among blacks.

These groups and individuals relentlessly magnify black hate crimes to oppose affirmative action programs, stronger hate crime laws and various social programs; to downplay or justify the proliferation of white-supremacist-tinged paramilitary groups, police violence and racial profiling; and to lobby strenuously for more prisons and police and tougher laws. Black-on-white violence also reinforces whites' fears of blacks as the ultimate menace to society.

The Taylor onslaught claimed innocent lives and caused monumental pain and suffering to the victims' families and friends. It dangerously heightens racial distrust and poisons racial attitudes. When blacks say or do nothing about these attacks, it is taken by some as a tacit signal that blacks put less value on white lives than on black lives -- a terrible price to pay for black silence on black hate crimes.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of the forthcoming "The Disappearance of Black Leadership" and the director of the National Alliance for Positive Action. He wrote this article for Slate magazine.

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