Was it racism - or raging testosterone?

September 08, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

AM I THE ONLY one who read Sun reporter Sarah Schaffer's story with a sense of dM-ijM-` vu? I certainly hope so. The story ran Sunday under the headline: "Questions persist in death of black teen."

Schaffer's story was about the death of Noah Jamahl Jones, whose 17 years on this Earth ended prematurely July 24 after he and two friends were involved in a fight with another group of guys in Pasadena. Four men were charged with Jones' death. Anne Arundel County prosecutors have dropped the charges - for now. Jones was black, and the four men are white. Perhaps inevitably, the county NAACP got involved, and charges of racism have been hurled.

Yes, Jones' death might have been all about race. It might have had nothing to do with race. And, like a similar incident I was involved in about 32 years ago, it might have been more about testosterone.

The fight that led to Jones' death started after he and two friends showed up at a party and became involved in a brawl outside the house. The senselessness of the incident reminds me of something that happened in 1972 after I left a party on the campus of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with two friends: my college roommate and his kid brother.

We crossed some railroad tracks in downtown Lancaster when four white guys parked in a car called out the word. It was my roommate who heard it: the dreaded N-word.

You know, of course, what happened next. We approached the car. Fostering better race relations was not on our agenda. Inevitably, words were exchanged. The guy driving the car turned on the ignition, gunned the engine and tried to run us over. We smashed his windshield with some bricks.

It's said the good Lord sometimes looks out for fools and children, and maybe divine intervention played a role in saving seven fools that September night. Lancaster police came along and intervened before either side could do real damage to the other. They ordered the three of us to go on our way and the white guys to go back to York, Pa., from whence they hailed.

They drove 30 miles to hurl racial epithets at us when there are plenty of black folks in York? "Boy, what morons," I scoffed afterward.

"Oh, and you weren't?" I've asked myself a hundred times since then.

True confession time requires that I say we all were. But I noticed, as we played the cat-and-mouse game with the white guys trying to run us over while we hurled bricks at the car and dodged out of the way, that one of them threw a beer can at us. They were probably drunk. I don't know about my roommate and his brother, but I hadn't been drinking. I was stone-cold sober. The white guys might have had an excuse. What, exactly, was mine?

The main struggle in the lives of some men is whether they will survive their hormones. I was a 20-year-old who, at the time, let his testosterone do the thinking for him but managed to survive. In the 32 years since, I've wondered how many similar incidents have as much to do with race as they do with masculinity, with this macho credo that says you have to "prove your manhood," whatever the dickens that phrase means.

Couldn't either side have proved it that night by just walking away? (Or driving away, in the case of our Caucasian friends.) How many similar incidents in our history could have been avoided by men simply walking away?

That nasty Chicago race riot of 1919 that left many people of both races dead? Started with some dispute between a bunch of black guys and white guys, none of whom could walk away. The Scottsboro Boys incident of the 1930s, where nine black teen-agers were accused of raping two white women? That started when some white guy stepped on a black guy's hand, which led to fisticuffs, which led to many lives tragically changed over a trivial incident that could have been avoided if somebody had just walked away.

Are today's problems of young black men caused by white racism or by black men with a misguided sense of manhood? Of course, nobody black will admit the latter. Well, Bill Cosby, maybe. But when current black liberal misleaders moan, "There are more black men in prison than in college," no one thinks to ask, "Well, how come black women seem to be doing so much better?" (Trust me, they are. And it's been that way for a while now.)

Young Noah Jamahl Jones might have died because of an incident with very racist overtones. Or he might have died because the issue was more gender than race. Unfortunately, only he, his friends and his assailants know for sure.

And Jones took his knowledge to the grave with him.

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