Wake-up call

Police brutality has long been a problem for African-Americans, but it took immigrant blacks being brutalized for New Yorkers to take notice.

By Joel Dreyfuss
Published February 12, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

NEW YORK -- It's a troubling measure of race relations in this city that two cases involving immigrant victims have brought legitimacy to the issue of police brutality. First, there was the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian-American, who was reportedly sodomized with a broom handle in a Brooklyn station house last year. Now there is the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea, killed by a volley of 41 police shots in a Bronx hallway.

The truth is that immigrants are far less likely to have unpleasant encounters with the police than native-born blacks. But there is so much tension and racial weariness between blacks and whites in this city (and elsewhere) that a case involving an African-American doesn't cause the same immediate outrage -- not the shooting of Eleanor Bumpers, an elderly woman wielding a knife in her kitchen 10 years ago, not the death a few years later of a slight young artist, beaten so badly that his own parents didn't recognize him.

Just as African-Americans bear the burden of presumed criminality in the eyes of police (and the news media), immigrants have their own positive stereotypes. They are everything African-Americans are presumed not to be: hard-working, respectful, law-abiding. So when an immigrant gets the short end of police justice, even when that immigrant is black, the event has added weight, and it is harder to dismiss the complaints as more whining by blacks.

Not surprisingly, the messengers of rage have leaped into the breach. The Rev. Al Sharpton seems to have hijacked the Diallos' grief, appearing at a press conference with the dead man's mother, urging her to reject Mayor Rudy Giuliani's offer of financial aid. The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume helped raise the issue to the national level by urging a federal investigation. But the city's black elected officials, often too willing to yield the stage to Sharpton, have begun to speak out on the brutality issue. They, too, understand, that a dead immigrant gives legitimacy to an issue they have raised for years -- to no avail.

All this racial solidarity is ironic because black immigrants often work hard to distance themselves from African-Americans. It doesn't take them long to understand -- and to want to escape -- the second-class status that shrouds black Americans. When the Louima case broke, I said to some Haitian immigrants that Louima was proof the Haitian-American strategy of escaping through exoticism had failed. They bristled, but some conceded that they had never had as much contact with American blacks until the Louima case. And they were as surprised as white suburbanites to discover that there were responsible and competent black lawyers, doctors and ministers in the communities they had shared for years.

It may be months before the circumstances of the shooting become clear. But only the most pessimistic believe Diallo's death was a cold-blooded execution. More likely, it was the tragic confluence of circumstances and conditions that the Giuliani administration (and, to be fair, its predecessors in New York City) has never been willing to address. It has to do with the risk of arming young, white men from the suburbs -- the vast majority of the NYPD -- and turning them loose in an inner city they loathe and fear. It has to do with the inability of many white officers to tell the difference between a black man going about his business and a criminal who needs to be controlled.

It also has do with an authoritarian machismo that is very much part of the New York police culture. In the Louima case, one apparent reason for the brutal act was that one of the cops had dropped his gun belt and then lost a fistfight with a man he believed to be Louima. In the case of Diallo, the poor African had apparently never heard Richard Pryor's famous routine about a black motorist stopped by the police: "I ... am ... taking ... out ... my ... wallet," says Pryor in a slow, deliberate way. The humor comes from the unstated knowledge that one false move can turn a routine traffic stop into a summary execution.

This is the second time, too, that the foundation of Mayor Giuliani's credibility as a national Republican candidate has been shaken by immigrant outrage. His frequently stated list of accomplishments includes the city's startling reduction in crime. He likes to note that fewer blacks are dying because the city's murder rate has plummeted during his five years in office -- a citation that is intended to offset his almost complete absence of a relationship with the city's black population.

Maybe lower crime rates are like a good economy. No one wants to rock the boat. So what if the cops get a little rough with those people? You can take your kids to the park, go to the grocery at night, spend $200 for dinner in a smart new restaurant and then walk home. We all know, although we don't often discuss it, that controlling minorities has long been an unofficial role of the police, even in "liberal" cities like New York. That's why black men get stopped for Driving While Black, or why middle-class black kids coming home from private schools are asked where they're going. Or why an immigrant vendor on his way to dinner goes home to Guinea in a box, leaving behind a sense of outrage and alienation that he would not even have understood.

Joel Dreyfuss

Joel Dreyfuss covers technology for Fortune magazine. He is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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