African-Americans grapple with race of sniper suspects

Relief at capture, worry about repercussions

Search for the Sniper

October 25, 2002|By Tanika White, Laurie Willis and Linell Smith | Tanika White, Laurie Willis and Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

In the African-American community, the good news came first and the bad news a half-beat later.

"Did you hear?" huddled office workers and shocked e-mail buddies said to one another: They think they caught the sniper ... and he's black.

It was a revelation few expected: The two suspects in the Washington-area serial sniper killings are not disenchanted white men, as were Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh or Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski.

John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, are black.

Pundits and criminal profilers got it all wrong; they had predicted that the deadly accurate sniper would turn out to be a young to middle-age white man with a political or social ax to grind. Yesterday, experts admitted to being surprised.

However, in Baltimore and around the country, many African Americans - from average citizens to influential leaders - took the news personally.

Diania Dabney, owner of Dabney's Beauty Salon on Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore, said the alleged snipers' race was the buzz all yesterday in her shop. "It makes me feel good that they're caught, but I'm sorry they're black because I'm black," Dabney said. "It's a negative thing against the race, and we already have enough negative things against us."

The talk that went on in Dabney's shop was echoed around the country.

Yesterday, on the Tom Joyner Morning Show - a nationally syndicated radio program that reaches more than 5 million African-Americans between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. daily - the phone lines were flooded with callers shocked to hear that the serial sniper suspects are black.

"Folks were disappointed, and kinda like relieved and scared at the same time," said Keith Fisher, producer of the Baltimore-area affiliate that carries the show on WWIN-FM. "People were saying, `Oh, I hope it's not the guy, but if it is, well, then it's good that they caught him.'"

Former Black Entertainment Television talk-show host Tavis Smiley, who has a radio program on National Public Radio, plans a show on the suspects' race next week.

Profilers who missed the mark had relied on the history of such crimes.

"It's very unusual for serial killers to be black," said Ken Jennings, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, a local black think tank. "This is very surprising. I think people are very surprised."

Although cases of black serial killers are unusual, there have been some. Henry Louis Wallace, a black man, was convicted in 1997 of murdering nine women in the Charlotte, N.C., area over a 20-month period.

Dr. Na'im Akbar, former president of the National Association of Black Psychologists and a professor at Florida State University, said he fielded calls all day yesterday from colleagues, family members and a producer from Smiley's radio show, all of whom wanted to talk about the suspected snipers' race.

"I certainly am shocked and upset and saddened," Akbar said. "This is not typical conduct for us. I mean black folks do some crazy stuff, but we don't do anonymous violence. That's not in our history. We just don't do that."

Akbar said many African-Americans know that the race of the serial sniper suspects will reflect negatively on them.

"The reality of it is we know on some very basic level that in this country we are always identified with the worst aspects of our community," he said. "So it becomes a very personal thing."

Meanwhile, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he saw little connection between the suspects' race and the crimes they are alleged to have committed.

"Madmen, like bigots, come in all colors," Mfume said.

Still, the two suspects had many African-Americans scrambling to make sense of it all.

"It's unbelievable to think that with all we go through, we'd be out here [randomly] killing people," said Laverne Smith, 41, who owns Laverne's Up Close & Personal, a hair-braiding shop on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I have to admit that I kinda said that myself," said Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon. "It's bad enough that somebody's doing this. But then to find out that the person doing this is of your race just makes it even more difficult to" understand.

Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at the University of Florida and a co-author of Living with Racism, said African-Americans are legitimately worried that this will exacerbate white stereotypes of the black man as violent. "The news coverage itself will be racist in a number of subtle ways," he said. "We are constantly reminded that a black criminal is black and only occasionally reminded that a white criminal is white."

Chuck Stone, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, said race isn't an issue when a white man commits a heinous crime. "We denounce the act but not the person because he's white," Stone said. "When it's one of us, they say `Oh, the black guy did it.'"

Stone said that's why when the killing started, African-Americans said, "Oh, we hope they're not black."

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