Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation
Mary C. Waters
Mary C. Waters
Post-1965, immigration and the breakdown of the racial/ethnic dichotomy
Voluntary and involuntary minorities
The identities of the dominant groups
Identities and bias incidents
Incidents of bias in New York city
Competing perspectives, multiple realities
This paper argues that the historical experiences of groups in the United States significantly shape the various cultural lenses through which people understand inter-ethnic conflict. Specifically, the mode of incorporation of a people into the social and cultural structure of the United States, along with their subsequent treatment, influences three aspects of that understanding at both the individual and group levels:
1. The meanings attached to racial and ethnic identities: are these oppositional identities, immigrant identities, or symbolic identities?
2. The relationship of the group and its component individuals to the state: do they trust the institutions of the state to be fair and honest? Do they see systematic oppression, and the power of the state exercised against them, or do they see the state as an instrument of power to be used by their own group or as a neutral arbiter among groups?
3. The meanings attached to incidents of hate crimes, violence, and intergroup encounters: are they perceived as temporary, accidental and individualized, or as permanent, systematic, and institutionalized?
The empirical material used to amplify this argument is a study of four major bias incidents in New York City in the period 1987-1992. Subsequent to these incidents, the well-publicized rioting in Los Angeles occurred, a racially-tinged event that caused considerable death and destruction of property. While Los Angeles is not discussed here, the four New York incidents examined remain particularly worthy of analysis.
This paper focuses on understanding the roles, reactions, and perceptions of three groups of people: West Indian immigrants, African Americans, and white ethnic Americans. It explores the little-known fact that most such incidents in New York City during the past five years have involved West Indians as victims. Nevertheless, these incidents have generally been reported and understood in terms of the long-term racial problems involving whites and blacks in the United States. However, I differentiate the experiences of West Indians and American blacks, and trace how those differences contribute to different understandings of causes and consequences of hate crimes in New York City.
The paper proceeds as follows: First, I trace the historical distinction in the United States between groups defined in terms of ethnicity and in terms of race. I explore the differences in the ways these groups have been incorporated into the American society and polity and the differences in how they have experienced violence.
Second, I examine the ways in which some of these distinctions have broken down in the last 30 years or so, with the large-scale immigration of non-Europeans following upon changes in American immigration laws in 1965.
Third, I introduce a typology of three groups - involuntary minorities, voluntary minorities, and the dominant white group (who are themselves descendants of voluntary minorities). In New York City these three groups are represented by African-Americans, West Indians, and white ethnics, such as Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, and Irish-Americans.
Part 4 of the paper describes the four major bias incidents, and traces the popular understandings of what happened in each of these groups in the Howard Beach case, to illustrate the general differences in their perceptions. I conclude with general principles of intergroup relations which can be abstracted from analysis of these incidents.
Race and ethnicity in the United States Americans generally distinguish between race relations and ethnic relations. The term "race' commonly refers to distinctions drawn from physical appearance while the term "ethnicity" commonly refers to distinctions based on national origin, language, religion, food, and other cultural markers (Stone, 1985). The history of the groups defined as ethnic has been one of increasing inclusion in society, economic and social assimilation and a decline in the salience and determinacy, though not the existence, of ethnic identities (Takaki, 1987; Lieberson and Waters, 1988; Waters and Lieberson, 1992; Neidert and Parley, 1985). Ethnic groups have generally been identified in cultural and social spheres but have not been given explicit legal status as a group (Glazer, 1987, Thernstrom, 1987).
In contrast, the history of racial groups has been marked by a greater degree of conflict and continued exclusion (Takaki, 1987; Blauner, 1972). Racial groups continue to be very separate from other groups in American life in terms of socio-economic status, residential segregation, and intermarriage (Lieberson and Waters, 1988). Moreover, since 1965, groups defined as racial or language minorities have been given explicit legal status and recognition by the government. The four federally designated minority groups are blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans (Thernstrom, 1987).
The different experiences of groups defined racially and ethnically have in part been explained by the different modes of incorporation of the groups into American society (Lieberson, 1961; Blauner, 1972). European ethnic groups are generally composed of voluntary migrants and their descendants who chose to come to the United States. Those defined racially, such as blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans in the South-West, and Puerto Ricans, have generally been incorporated into the United States historically through conquest or the forced migration of slaves.
As Lieberson (1961) argues, the mode of incorporation of a group into the society has long-range effects on the probabilities of conflict and the extent to which that conflict becomes violent. He describes two different situations of initial contact: (1) subordination of an indigenous population by a migrant group; and (2) subordination of a migrant group by an indigenous racial or ethnic group. The first case has much more potential for conflict than the second.
In United States history, the initial violent confrontations between white settlers and the indigenous Indian, and later the Spanish, populations conformed to the first model by generally resulting in the formation of "racial" groups. The later successive assimilation of white European immigrants conformed to the second model and led to the formation of "ethnic groups." Lieberson identifies the United States after the subordination of the indigenous Indian population as belonging to the second type of society, as the core American group subordinated the incoming immigrant groups. The forced migration of black Africans as slaves does not fit Lieberson's model.
Post-1965, immigration and the breakdown of the racial/ethnic dichotomy
The growth in the size of the non-white voluntary immigrant population since 1965 challenges the dichotomy which once explained different patterns of American inclusion and assimilation: the ethnic pattern of assimilation of immigrants from Europe and their children and the racial pattern of exclusion of America's non-white peoples.1 The new wave of immigrants includes people who, though still defined "racially," have migrated voluntarily, and often under an immigrant legal preference system which selects for people with job skills and education that puts them well above their "co-ethnics" in the United States economy. Though generally defined as members of minority racial groups in the United States, these new immigrants do not necessarily share the racial and minority identities imposed on them when they arrive. Black immigrants to New York City from the Caribbean nation states - the subject of my current research - provide an example of a group that challenges these theoretical distinctions. They are voluntary migrants from societies in which blacks are the majority to a society in which blacks are a stigmatized minority (Waters and Mittelberg, 1992).
These immigrants have a degree of ethnic identity along with their racial identity as black. Thus individual immigrants can identify themselves as Jamaican or Haitian as well as black. While some aspects of racial oppression are no doubt the same throughout the world,2 the fact remains that these immigrants are entering a society in which they are assigned immediately to membership in a group which has its own history of oppression and minority status. For instance, these immigrants are defined as black for purposes of affirmative action accounting for employment and for voting rights enforcement statistics.
These Caribbean immigrants have a complicated relationship with their new identities. Most of them try to distance themselves from American blacks. They emphasize their own cultural and ethnic identity which distinguishes them from American blacks. They declare that Jamaicans and American blacks are different groups with different values, customs, traditional foods, dialects, and so on (Bryce-Laporte, 1972; Buchanan, 1979; Dominguez, 1975; Foner, 1985, 1987; Justus, 1976; Sutton, 1973; Sutton and Makiesky, 1973; Bonnett, 1990; Waters, 1991b; Apollon and Waters, 1990). They also point to the different reactions and relations with whites foreign-born blacks and American blacks have.
West Indians generally do not expect racism and racist reactions from whites to the same extent as American blacks. West Indians tend to be more open to whites and more oblivious to racial slights. They have grown up in societies where the majority of people are blacks: as a result they have had less personal experience with racism of the kind that American blacks have encountered all their lives. Thus they expect less racism and interpret most interactions with whites as owing to their own individual characteristics rather than to their racial characteristics. They describe the American blacks as hypersensitive to issues of race, while the American blacks describe the foreign-born blacks as naive in their acceptance of whites.
American society in general and whites in particular have tended not to recognize these distinctions. They have generally defined American blacks and foreign-born blacks as similar in their identities as blacks, thus equating racial and ethnic identities under the umbrella of a single racial identity (Waters, 1991; Woldemikael, 1989; Bryce-Laporte, 1972; Kasinitz, 1992). This lack of recognition by outsiders of ethnic differences within the racially identified group tends to promote a common racial identity. The factors uniting African Americans and Caribbean-Americans are a common racial identity based on skin colour, their historical roots in Africa, and the shared aspects of their histories as victims of racism in European colonialism and slavery.
Thus, the distinction between groups defined by race and those defined by ethnicity which has characterized American society throughout its history is challenged by the increase in non-European immigrants since 1965. These include large numbers of people who, though members of a racial group, blacks, are being incorporated into American society as voluntary immigrants trying to maintain an ethnic identity which recognizes their non-American roots. The distinctions developed by the anthropologist John Ogbu to explain education performance in different societies is a starting point for understanding the positions of these immigrants in the United States.
Voluntary and involuntary minorities
Ogbu (1978,1990) has developed a theory about the cultural differences between voluntary migrants and involuntary minorities, a difference which corresponded in the past with the historical distinction in the United States between racial and ethnic groups, but which, as we have seen, is now more complicated.
Ogbu has examined the question of why minorities stemming from involuntary migrants in a variety of countries around the world do not perform well academically, especially when compared to the academic achievement of voluntary immigrants. He argues that the persistent underperformance of minorities in these societies cannot be completely explained by "conflicts in cognitive, communication, social interaction, teaching and learning styles" (Ogbu, 1990: 144). He maintains instead that the history of the mode of incorporation of the group into the society, the history of how the minority group was treated by the dominant group, and the history of how the minorities responded to that treatment must be taken into account because these histories give rise to different cultures and identities.
The important distinction Ogbu makes is between immigrant "voluntary minorities" who have chosen to move to a society in order to improve their well-being, and castelike "involuntary minorities" who were initially brought in to the society through slavery, conquest, and colonization. He argues that voluntary and involuntary minorities have very different understandings of what it means to be a minority, which are a result of the historical experience of how they were incorporated into society and the cultural adaptations they made to the treatment they were subjected to by the dominant group. Voluntary migrants who are subject to discrimination and exclusion because they use their home country and culture as a frame of reference do not measure their success or failure primarily by the standards of other white Americans, but by the standards of their homelands. Such minorities, at least during the first generation, do not internalise the effects of such discrimination, of cultural and intellectual denigration. (Ogbu, 1990: 8)
They develop "immigrant identities" which differ from the dominant group in society's identities, but are not necessarily opposed to those identities.
The situation differs greatly for involuntary minorities who do develop oppositional identities:
For involuntary minorities there were no expectations of economic, political and social benefits. Resenting their initial incorporation by force, regarding their past as a golden age and seeing their future as grim in the absence of collective struggle, they understood that the American system was based on social class and minority conditions. (Ogbu, 1990: 150)
The coping responses that different groups develop for dealing with problems with the dominant group thus reflect the different histories and social psychologies of the groups. Ogbu argues that voluntary migrants have a greater degree of trust for white Americans, for the societal institutions controlled by whites, than do involuntary minorities. Such immigrants acquiesce and rationalise the prejudice and discrimination against them by saying in effect, that they are strangers in a foreign land [and] have no choice but to tolerate prejudice and discrimination. (Ogbu, 1990: 152)
The involuntary minorities do not have a homeland with which to compare their current treatment, or in which to root their identities. Thus, Ogbu argues, they do not see discrimination against them as a temporary barrier to be overcome. Instead, "recognizing that they belong to a subordinate, indeed a disparaged minority, they compare their situation with that of their white American peers. The prejudice against them seems permanent, indeed institutionalized" (Ogbu, 1990: 153). This also leads to distrust of the institutions controlled by the dominant group. This understanding of their situation leads the involuntary minorities to conclude that solidarity and challenges to the rules of the dominant society are the only way to improve their situation. Ogbu describes the psychological orientation that develops among involuntary minorities as being "oppositional" in nature: "They do not see their social identity as different from that of their white oppressors, but as opposed to the social identity of white Americans" (Ogbu, 1990:155). These "oppositional identities" mean that the involuntary minorities come largely to define themselves in their core identities in terms of their opposition to the dominant group.
For blacks in America, Ogbu argues, the very meaning of being black involves not being white. The strong value put on solidarity and opposition to rules perceived as being against them means that when a member of the group is seen as cooperating with the dominant society's institutions, his or her very identity is called into question. In Ogbu's work, the young black student who tries to achieve in school is accused of "acting white."
The identities of the dominant groups
The last group under review are the descendants of voluntary minorities from European countries, who are now in the later stages of assimilation. My earlier studies have examined different social psychological ways of experiencing an ethnic or racial identity in the United States depending on whether one is a member of an ethnic group that is assimilating or a racial group that is still experiencing exclusion and discrimination (Waters, 1990). The groups which have achieved a degree of individual and group social mobility adopt ethnicity as a symbolic, voluntary identity which is intermittent in its effects on the individual and freely chosen as a valued personal asset (Waters, 1990; Gans, 1979). These ethnic identities have few costs but many benefits for the individual, such as psychological feelings of closeness to other group members and of originality and specialness which come to an individual by virtue of being included in the group.
People who assert a symbolic ethnicity do not give much attention to the ease with which they are able to slip in and out of their ethnic roles. It is quite natural to them that in the greater part of their lives, their ethnicity does not matter, it is largely a matter of personal choice and a source of pleasure. This approach to their own ethnicity leads to a situation where whites with a symbolic ethnicity are unable to understand the everyday influence and importance of skin color and racial minority status for members of minority groups in the United States. The way in which they think about their own ethnicity - the voluntary, enjoyable aspects of it - makes it difficult to understand the contemporary position of non-whites. Since their own ethnicity is a voluntaristic, personal matter, it is difficult for white ethnics to understand that race or ethnicity for others is influenced by societal and political components.
For these white ethnics, invoking an ethnic background has increasingly become a voluntary, individual decision. Invoking their ethnic background is done for the enjoyment of the personality traits or for the rituals associated with their ethnicity. For them ethnicity itself takes on certain individual and positive connotations. The process and content of a symbolic ethnicity then make it increasingly difficult for white ethnics to sympathize with, or understand, the experience of a non-symbolic ethnicity, the experience of racial minorities in the United States.
Identities and bias incidents
While Ogbu's distinction between voluntary and involuntary minorities was developed through analysis of ethnographic work among minority groups in state schools, I will extend the theory in order to analyse the ways in which minority groups respond to violent incidents and the criminal justice system. Voluntary and involuntary minorities have different responses to incidents of racial violence and in turn these will differ from the responses of the white dominant group. The three different types of response will be partly determined by the historical experiences of the groups and the resulting meaning that membership in the groups has for the individuals. Involuntary migrants experience discrimination and violence as systemic; the criminal justice system is viewed with distrust and with the suspicion that it is part of the systematic institutional racism which caused the violence in the first place.
Voluntary minorities view the violence as directed at them because of their membership in the group and also see the group perpetrating the violence as part of the dominant society. However, they have more trust in the state as an arbiter of justice; the criminal justice system is not automatically implicated in the incidents and there is a desire to deal with the incidents according to "the rules."
The dominant group has yet another reaction. Its members generally do not consciously experience themselves as members of any group but instead understand themselves to be individuals first and foremost. Members of both voluntary and involuntary groups are accustomed to seeing their identities and group membership as an integral part of how society and other individuals respond to them calling forth discrimination or accommodation or some sort of conscious reaction to their identities. But members of the dominant group invoke their identities in a voluntary manner, only for their own purposes and generally believing that their identities as white or as some other ethnicity (Italian, Irish, etc.) do not matter very much. As a result, they experience and understand bias incidents in an individualistic manner.
Examined in this context, then, the four racial incidents in New York described here prove to be more complicated than a simple black-white distinction would allow. The violence has not occurred between American whites and American blacks who share a long history of racial hatred, violence, and conflict. Instead, much of it has occurred between native whites and foreign-born blacks. As soon as these incidents became publicly known, however, American black and American white political readerships and the media started to define the situation in terms of black white conflict. Thus the people involved in the incidents have been caught up in a rhetoric and an intergroup dynamic that has been going on between white and black Americans. These immigrant individuals are thus identified as being members of a group - black Americans - to which they may or may not see themselves as belonging. The next section of the paper analyses the specific incidents of bias in light of these further distinctions.
Incidents of bias in New York city
New York is a city of some 7.3 million people. In 1990 whites comprised 43 per cent of the population, blacks 25 per cent, Hispanics 24 per cent, and Asians 7 percent. One-third of the city's population is foreign-born, with approximately 100,000 newcomers arriving each year. (It is estimated that between 25 and 40 per cent of the black population are foreign-born.) The 1980s were generally a time of economic prosperity for the city, which gained new jobs in the service industry while a long-term decline in manufacturing jobs continued. But the situation changed at the end of the decade. Since 1989, the city has been in an economic recession and job losses have been recorded in all sectors of the economy.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s New York City became a symbol of racial tension and violence for the nation. Beginning with the murder of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach in December 1986, a series of incidents occurred in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens which have suddenly made neighbourhood names stand as code words for racial hatred, modern-day lynchings, and the failures of blacks and whites to live together in peace. The Howard Beach incident, where Griffith was killed, was followed in 1989 by the killing of another African-American, Yusuf Hawkins, in Bensonhurst, fire bombings in Canarsie, a long boycott of a Korean grocer in Flatbush by African-Americans, as well as riots and the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights in 1991. While the generally all-black neighbourhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Harlem, and the South Bronx were the symbols of the failures of American race relations in the 1960s, these areas have been replaced with neighborhoods which are white or interracial as the sites of our failures in race relations in the 1990s.
In the parlance of the city police department, interracial violence or threats of violence are defined as "bias incidents." The police have a bias investigation team which decides whether or not to classify a particular incident or crime as a bias incident. The Bias Crime Unit has been collecting statistics of bias incidents in New York since 1981, using the definition of a bias crime developed by the California Racial Ethnic and Religious Crimes Project: "Any act to cause physical injury, emotional suffering or property damage, which appears to be motivated, all or in part, by race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation" (DeSantis, 1991: 86).
From 1981 to 1986 the total annual number of confirmed bias cases was never more than 300. But after the well-publicized Howard Beach and Tawana Brawley3 cases, the numbers increased to 463 in 1987 from 265 in 1986. In the last four years the number of cases has remained at this same high level. There were 550 cases in 1988, 527 in 1990, and 540 in 1991. The strict definition of a bias crime means that many incidents of cross-racial violence are not classified as bias crimes. There must be an explicit mention of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation surrounding the crime for it to be so classified. This has implications because the different parties to these incidents will differ on whether or not the crime had anything to do with race.
The crimes reported as bias crimes (also called hate crimes) varied in severity. In 1991, of the total 540 incidents, 140 were relatively minor incidents of phone calls or letters laced with slurs. The total number also included 11 swastikas painted on synagogues and homes. Most of the incidents did not involve physical injury, the three murders and 146 assaults constituted 28 per cent of the total bias crimes reported. However, the largest category of crimes were those related to race. In 1991, 121 incidents were aimed at blacks, 70 at whites, 38 at Hispanic people, 10 at East Indians, 6 at Chinese, and 2 at Koreans. In general, they involved groups of attackers against one or two victims. They have also generally involved young people: 60 per cent of victims and perpetrators were under age 18. While these official statistics probably include all of the homicides and extremely serious racial incidents, advocacy groups caution that most bias incidents go unreported. It is estimated that as many as 80 per cent of incidents are not reported to authorities, because victims either do not know about how to go about reporting the incidents, do not believe anything will be done about them, or are intimidated through fear of further violence if they report what happened to them.
As I have noted, this paper focuses on the four bias incidents in New York City which resulted in sustained attention in the media and an appreciable rise in bias incidents reported to the police. After each racial incident reported here, the number of cases recorded in the following month surged to peak levels.
Although these bias incidents have been widely reported, it has not been widely noticed that three of these racial incidents have involved Caribbean-American immigrants as the victims. Only the killing of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst involved an African-American.4 The four incidents referred to here include the 1986 Howard Beach incident, in which a Trinidadian immigrant, Michael Griffith, was attacked by a gang of whites and chased onto a busy highway, where he was struck by a car and killed. The second incident, known as Bensonhurst after the name of the neighborhood in which it occurred, happened in August 1989, when an African-American youth, Yusef Hawkins, was killed by a gang of whites, apparently because they thought he and his friends were coming to visit a neighborhood girl. The third case, the Korean grocery boycott in January 1990, involved a dispute between a Haitian-American shopper and a Korean-American shop owner. This dispute escalated into a major political incident in which a boycott by blacks against Korean groceries and firebombings and fights resulted.
The final incident, in August 1991, was the one which occurred in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. An Orthodox Jewish driver lost control of his car and hit and killed a seven-year-old black immigrant boy from Guyana named Gavin Cato. A dispute over whether a Jewish ambulance refused to treat the dying boy inflamed tensions in the mixed Jewish-Caribbean black neighborhood and a few nights of rioting resulted. In the first night of rioting a Jewish student from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed and killed. Before it was over, 163 people were arrested and 66 civilians and 173 police were hurt.
An analysis of the reactions of the participants in all of these incidents shows that in general their understandings reflect the differences outlined here among the African-Americans as involuntary minorities, the West Indian immigrants as voluntary minorities, and the white ethnics as dominant symbolic ethnics. Because of space limitations only the Howard Beach incident will be described in detail here.
Howard Beach was the first incident to bring nationwide attention to race relations in New York. On 19 December, 1986, four men were travelling on a main thoroughfare in the section of the borough of Queens known as Howard Beach when their car broke down. The four were Michael Griffith, aged 23, whose family had come from Trinidad 18 years ago when he was 5 years old; the boyfriend of Michael's mother, Cedric Sandiford, 36, who had immigrated from Guyana when he was a teenager; Timothy Grimes, 18, the boyfriend of Cedric's niece, and Curtis Sylvester, 19, a cousin of Michael's whose family also came from Trinidad. Sylvester stayed with the car while the three other men walked into the main part of Howard Beach to get help.
The men were spotted by a group of young white men who were leaving a party in the neighbourhood. That group included Jon Lester, 18, originally a South African, who had immigrated from England with his family four years earlier; Scott Kern, 18; and Jason Ladone, 17. The white men spotted the black men, who had stopped in a pizza parlour to get something to eat. Lester, who was the leader of the white group, had apparently gathered its members together, shouting, "There's riggers at the pizza parlour. Let's get them" (Breindel, 1987: 22).
As the black men walked up the street the whites pounced on them. They first taunted the blacks and then began beating them. Grimes was hit once before he managed to escape. Griffith and Sandiford tried to get away but the white teenagers caught up with them along a fence that bordered the Shore Parkway and continued their assault. Sandiford feigned unconsciousness. Griffith, severely beaten, dove through a three-foot hole in the fence and staggered onto the parkway. He was struck and killed by an automobile driven by Dominick Blum, 24, of Brooklyn, a court officer and the son of a policeman.
Meanwhile, various witnesses of the beatings and the incident of whites chasing the blacks had called the police. When the police eventually responded, they found a dazed Sandiford walking along the parkway and the body of Michael Griffith by the side of the parkway. However, instead of immediately believing Sandiford and treating him as the victim of the beating he had endured, they treated him as if he were a suspect of a crime. "When police found the beaten Sandiford, they had him spread against the car and searched him, [in Sandiford's words:] 'he searched me, ripped off my coat. Then he started asking me about some crimes committed down the road. He started treating me like a criminal.'" The police then allowed Sandiford to call Michael's mother, Jean Griffith, to inform her that her son had been killed. While Sandiford was talking to Mrs Griffith and trying to calm her, the detectives made him hang up the phone (Hynes and Drury, 1991: 139).
The bare facts of the case - that these men were attacked by a mob of whites only because they were black and walking on a public street in an all-white neighbourhood - brought about immediate widespread attention. The crime was generally condemned, leading to demands for quick action by the police, the mayor, and black leaders.
Almost immediately, radical leaders of the African-American community became involved in the case. The insensitive treatment of Sandiford by the police added fuel to the charges of black leaders that the crime was not limited to the white mob who had chased the men, but instead was part of the systematic, institutionalized conspiracy of whites to keep blacks down and occasionally to kill them. Sandiford at first cooperated with the police and the district attorney investigating the case, but the African-American activist lawyers, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox, advised him to withdraw his support and to refuse further cooperation. They argued that the police were involved in a conspiracy to protect the driver of the car that had hit Griffith. As I have stated, Dominick Blum, the driver of the car, worked for the criminal justice system as a court reporter and his father was a policeman. It was this tie to the criminal justice system which suggested to the black leaders that a cover-up of Blum's complicity in the crime was quite possible. Investigating detectives quickly concluded that Blum could not logically have been part of the mob (since his car was proceeding on the highway and since he had been elsewhere). But the activist lawyers, along with the Reverend Al Sharpton, a well-known African-American community figure, accused the district attorney and criminal justice system of taking part in a cover-up.
Mason and Maddox, originally from Georgia, and Sharpton, from Brooklyn, had represented victims of white violence in the past. They were explicit about using the Howard Beach murder as a metaphor for black-white relations throughout the country:
On the day Sandiford vowed not to co-operate with Santucci [the Queens district attorney], Maddox met with a small group of black reporters in a tiny room of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and told them that black activists throughout the city were "developing an agenda that is bigger than Michael Griffith", an agenda that included sharpening the lines between friends and enemies of the black community. "Never again will we lose our children," Maddox told them. "It would be better that we would all be eliminated today than for us to continue living like we're living in this city and this state." (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 99)
Mason and Maddox were explicit about not trusting the criminal justice system to investigate the crime fairly and counselled the victim's family not to cooperate. In further writing about the Howard Beach incident, the political analyst Jim Sleeper (1990) pointed to this insistence on the guilt of Blum by the black leaders in spite of convincing evidence that it was not possible, as evidence that the anger and perceptions of the black leaders were leading to situations in which they cut themselves off from other groups which might otherwise naturally be their allies in city politics.
In addition to Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton, the major figures in the Howard Beach group were the Reverend Herbert Daughtry of the Black United Front and Sonny Carson of Black Men against Crack. These African-American leaders called for boycotts against pizza parlours citywide, and white-owned businesses in Howard Beach became the initial targets.
These reactions of the African-American leaders reflect the particular lens through which blacks as involuntary minorities see black-white race relations. These leaders see the oppression and discrimination directed against blacks as something permanent, best confronted by challenging the rules of the system through racial solidarity. The tactic of not cooperating with the criminal justice system is a sensible one once the white-controlled state is perceived as systematically biased against your group. From this perspective, the actual guilt or innocence of Dominick Blum no longer mattered, since all whites are symbolically guilty for creating the violent and racist society which protected the white mob attacking the four black men in Howard Beach.
Details indicate how the family and co-ethnics of Michael Griffith at first interpreted what happened to him differently from the radicalized political leaders. Jean Griffith, the 42-year-old nurse's aide who was the mother of the slain boy, stated: "It still doesn't sit in my mind what whites did to my son... But I don't feel that whites are all the same. I've worked with children and most of the kids are white. I worked with one white child that I loved so much that when I got home at night I called his house to see how he was doing" (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 47).
When the special prosecutor Charles Hynes and his staff were waiting with Jean Griffith and Sandiford for the verdict at the trial of the white attackers, he reported that the mother of the slain boy was quite calm. Rather than issuing demands about the verdict or ultimatums she said to him: "Relax... whatever the jury does is one thing, but the Lord will provide, and do what He has to do in His own good time" (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 297). Sandiford also did not go on the record with blanket accusations against all whites or with remarks which would heighten polarization of the races. After the verdict of guilty for two of the whites accused in the killing, a reporter "asked Sandiford if the convictions said something about the value of black life in America. 'No sir,' he replied, 'It says something about the value of human life in America'" (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 300).
This interpretation squares with the reports of researchers who have argued that West Indians and American blacks have different expectations about race relations. Coming from societies in which blacks are in the majority, West Indians report that they are not sensitized to racial conflict as American blacks are. In a sense, then, when racism does strike, as in the case of Howard Beach, the West Indians are deeply shocked and report being surprised. Michael Griffith's mother told the Trinidad Express newspaper: "My son's death opened the eyes of the public... racism was something we read about in the Deep South. Maybe it was there all along in New York but I never really experienced it" (New York Carib News, 1987: 4).
Philip Kasinitz (1992: 247) stated that the West Indian people he interviewed for his book on West Indian politics in Brooklyn also reported that Howard Beach educated them to see things in a different light than they had before. He reports that a young Trinidadian woman about Michael Griffith's age told him: "We from the Caribbean don't think about racial matters as much. I think we have been very naive."
The reactions of the family of Michael Griffith and the words of the victim Cedric Sandiford provide a quite different interpretation of the situation. It may be that this different response resulted from different perspectives: the black political leaders were trying to make a political statement while the family were reacting to the tragedy that had befallen them. Still, the systematic difference between the Caribbean approach to understanding and coming to terms with these tragedies seems to differ from the African-American pattern of responses. That different reaction seems to correspond more closely to the model of voluntary minority as opposed to involuntary minority cultural identities which we have outlined.
Evidently the reactions of the West Indian participants and the black American leadership diverged on the issue of whether the racism that had killed Griffith was so pervasive that all whites and the institutions of the criminal justice system should also be held responsible and should not be trusted to bring justice to the situation. In contrast, the reactions of the accused white boys and their families diverged on a more fundamental issue whether race was involved at all in the killing. The parents of the Howard Beach defendants denied that it was racial. "I wish they would get off this racial angle," said Joanne Ladone. "It was a confrontation between two groups of people - not black and white but human beings" (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 235).
Whites generally use two approaches to make the point that race was not involved in the attacks. One is to deny that their identities as whites have anything to do with their actions - in a sense, to adopt a "raceless" interpretation in which the altercations are not bias crimes at all because the racial and ethnic identities of the participants had nothing to do with the encounters. The defence tried to bring into evidence the past criminal records of Griffith and Sandiford in an effort to prove that they had not been chased and attacked because of their race, but because they were suspected of being in Howard Beach to commit crimes and the whites were defending their community. (This, of course, is a ridiculous argument since the white attackers had no way of knowing the criminal records of the men. Black skin was being taken as a marker of dangerous intruders, itself a racist assumption which brings us full circle to the conclusion that the blacks were attacked only because of their race.)
The second way in which whites tended to deny that racism had anything to do with the incident involved arguing that the defendants could not be racist since they had friendly personal relations with black people. Jon Lester's mother stated: "Jon is not a racial person," noting that her son had been dating a black girl for some time (Hynes and Drury, 1990: 236). Sleeper (1990) reports that in his job as a waiter Lester had become friendly with a number of African-Americans, one of them a lawyer who defended him without charge when he had been arrested earlier for possessing a gun. This fact convinced Sleeper that Lester could not be a complete racist. Not only did he like some black people, but some black people liked him.
As we see, then, the three groups involved in Howard Beach had distinctly different interpretations of the situation which can best be understood by the types of identities they had developed over time.
Contents - Previous - Next