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Competing perspectives, multiple realities

The major conclusion stemming from Howard Beach and the other incidents in New York is the fact that these racial incidents can be viewed from different perspectives, each of which is equally legitimate and real to the particular groups of participants. These perspectives include an either/or perspective on the history of American race relations in which the divide that matters is whether or not the participants are white or black, a mosaic, multicultural pluralist perspective that looks at each of the groups involved and the ethnic and racial backgrounds and histories they bring to understanding the others' actions, or a non-ethnic, non-racial approach which sees these interactions as involving atomized individuals. The perspective evoked is related directly to the historically determined nature of the groups to which the individuals belong.

Three general themes emerge from these particular cases:

(1) the role of the media and the importance of looking at the differences between what Úlites and ordinary people believe;

(2) the role of violent events in highlighting and shaping group boundaries;

(3) the complexities of the position adopted by the state in dealing with bias incidents.

1 The media and the role of Úlites

The role of the media in defining the situation is often pivotal, differing at times from the perspective of the participants involved. Analysts and policy makers should beware of what Heisler (1990: 26) has described as "ethnic nominalism": defining groups by an objective characteristic and then assuming that people defined so subjectively identify themselves with this group. Applied to this case, the circumstance that whites tend not to see the differences between West Indian and American blacks does not mean that West Indian and American blacks identify with each other or that they see the world in the same way.

Accounts of the violence in the media tend to give some details of these multifaceted events but also they tend to force those details back into a black/white cultural lens, thus losing a grip on the different perceptions. That is partly because the people themselves are seeing these events in the black white focus, and partly because as Americans, reporters and authorities see the incidents in a black white focus.

╔lites who speak for a group may or may not share the same agenda as its rank-and-file membership. In the cases of Howard Beach, the Korean grocery boycott, and Crown Heights, the leadership of the protest movements was drawn primarily from American blacks although the victims were Caribbean Americans. It is at least an open question whether it is a case of ethnic no minalism to gloss over the differences between Caribbeans and Americans in reporting the incidents as involving "blacks" and in assuming that the leadership of the American black community interpreted and responded to the situation in the same way as the Caribbeans directly involved in the incidents. In the case of American society, where ethnic and racial groups have social status but not official political status as a group, there is no elected representative of the "black point of view." Leaders of protests in most of these situations were in fact protesting against a local government with a black American mayor and a black American police commissioner.

The media can define the groups involved and can also elevate spokespersons into the functional equivalent of an elected leader of a group or community. This has a circular effect, since the way people come to understand the "truth" of a situation they did not witness is in part through the accounts and interpretations of leaders who speak for them. This reinforces the leadership of certain spokespeople for the group and affirms their membership in the group for the individuals who have their identities and interpretations spoken for in the press.

But even when the incidents are open-and-shut cases of white violence against black American victims, as in Bensonhurst, an analysis of the ways in which the participants understand the components of their own identity is crucial in gauging how interventions by the criminal justice system, public demonstrations, and media coverage will be interpreted.

Not all black Americans have as much at stake in an oppositional identity as the radical black American leaders I have described here. The middle-class blacks who have found opportunities within the economic and political system are indeed moving towards a social identity and place in society which is less influenced by their colour than those blacks still outside the economic mainstream (Wilson, 1978). Thus they will develop a social identity which is more similar to that of a voluntary minority or a symbolic ethnicity - an identity which may differ from that of other groups but will not differ in terms of experienced oppression. Thus, Mayor Dinkins and the moderate black political leadership do not share the distrust and systemic interpretations of the black underclass and their radical leaders. (At least they do not share these interpretations to the same degree.)

However, in the city's politics it is the radical leadership and their disaffected poor constituents who generally speak for the people affected by these bias incidents. These radical black leaders "cater to the cluster of left-out working class and poor blacks (some in the middle class too) best described as the disenchanted" (Kilson and Cottingham, 1991: 525). As West (1991: 225) argues, these national non-elected black leaders "highlight the traditional problems of racial discrimination, racial violence and slow racial progress." It is this group's interpretation of the causes and consequences of the racial violence that influences the rhetoric of race relations played out in the media around these bias incidents, not necessarily the rhetoric that would be adopted by middle-class or immigrant blacks.

Elite leaders and spokespeople for a group involved in racial or ethnic violence may have their own agenda in reacting to the experience of violence. The existence of a threatening outside enemy who has harmed a member of the group is a powerful force to unite the members of the group to each other and to a strong leadership, disregarding the many interests other than racial or ethnic ones, such as growing class divisions and growing divisions based on nativity, which might disunite them.

2 Defining and shaping boundaries of the group

These incidents point up the role that such public political events play in defining the boundaries of groups and the internal and external definitions of belonging to particular groups. The nature of belonging to groups partly involves the group's history vis-Ó-vis the state and other groups. This relationship is shaped during such pivotal moments as these incidents of racial violence. So, for instance, while average immigrants from Trinidad to New York might have thought of themselves primarily as Trinidadian or West Indian before the murder of Michael Griffith, they may come closer to identifying themselves as black Americans afterwards. It was obvious that Griffith was killed for the colour of his skin and not for his identity as an immigrant.

Griffith was defined in the press and in the criminal justice process as a black American. This outside definition might tend to reinforce the black American identity of the average Trinidadian immigrant reading and listening to accounts of the murder in the media.

Finally, while this immigrant might understand the event as an incident of racial violence and hatred but not necessarily as systematic oppression, the interpretations offered by African-American leaders in the press and the behaviour of the police in the incident itself might serve to reinforce the perceived veracity of the definition of the situation by the African-American involuntary minority. Thus, Caribbeans in New York at the time could come away from this event with the perception that their earlier, more trusting approach to American institutions had been naive. This could signal the assimilation of these voluntary black immigrants into the historical experiences and resulting psychological identities of the involuntary black American minorities.

These case studies dramatically indicate the continued vast importance of race as a master status in the United States. Especially in these street encounters of racial violence in New York, the colour of a person's skin takes precedence over all other aspects of the person's identity or roles. These incidents demonstrate the involuntary character of race identity for minorities in this society and the enormous importance attached to race.

The aftermath of some of these incidents brings home to black immigrants in New York that, regardless of the differences and separation they see between themselves and black Americans, they are likely to be seen by the wider society only as "blacks." This serves to heighten political and social solidarity between black Americans and black immigrants and increase the degree of identity shift for these individual immigrants. These incidents lead to voluntary immigrants becoming socialized to think of themselves as involuntary minorities, with all the anger and sense of helplessness that entails.

3 The role of the state

Finally, these case studies elucidate principles and guidelines for the state in dealing with incidents of bias. The understanding of hate crimes differs depending on whether one sees them through the lens of race and the history of racial oppression in the United States, or through the lens of ethnic antagonism and intergroup rivalry. The state's position and directives vis-Ó-vis the participants should recognize these different interpretations. In the one view, the State (in its white, official form) is seen as part of the institutionalized racism and oppression of one group (blacks) in favour of another (whites). In another view, that of a pluralist society with a variety of groups, the state can be seen as neutrally adjudicating in the course of group conflicts, fights, and misunderstandings. In a third view, the primary players are seen to be individuals who happen to belong to groups, a circumstance that has little to do with the course of events. This perception is expressed in the argument by the whites accused in these cases.

These findings about the different reactions of different groups to these incidents imply different roles and responses for the state vis-Ó-vis the various groups. The apparatus and procedures in place in New York for dealing with bias incidents will only lead to a peaceful resolution if the responses of the criminal justice system, politicians and the police are appropriate to the understandings and reactions of the various groups and individuals involved.

The reactions of whites with a symbolic ethnic identity who are part of the dominant group in society will most likely fail to involve awareness of racial and ethnic factors perceived by members of the minority groups. In dealing with these white ethnics, the state must insist on the racial and ethnic nature of such crimes. For far too long in the United States certain whites have perpetrated violence on subordinate groups, counting on a blind eye from the state. To change that dynamic requires official recognition of the existence of racial and ethnic crimes, and the establishment of institutional mechanisms for distinguishing such crimes from individual crimes having nothing to do with group membership. The establishment of bias crime units and investigation teams such as those in New York is a step in this direction. It is important to understand that members of a dominant group tend not to recognize the ways in which one's membership in that group influences behaviour and attitudes.

In dealing with the identities and attitudes of voluntary migrants, the state has a different set of problems and objectives. One lesson drawn from the New York experience is that the state should not ratify existing categories for classifying ethnic and racial groups. If West Indians are treated and defined as part of the American black group, without recognition of their different cultures and understandings they might bring to conflict situations, they will eventually start to identify themselves as such. It is still an open question whether voluntary immigrants from the Caribbean will assimilate to being black Americans or to being a distinctive type of black ethnic. If our analysis is correct, the type of social identity they ultimately develop might influence their reactions to the various institutions in society; whether they see themselves as an ethnic group in a fluid and open society or whether they see themselves as a caste-like minority in a permanently disadvantaged position.

The authorities need to listen carefully to the nuanced interpretations of the groups involved in bias incidents. Not least, care must be taken to ascertain whether the leaders of particular protests actually represent the constituency they claim to represent. If West Indians are indeed less inclined than black Americans to experience such attacks in the light of historical racial attacks and enmity, they are more likely to see discrimination and racism as aberrations to be dealt with and overcome. The failure of the media and official government agencies to recognize or publicly discuss such differences between West Indians and American blacks could have long-term implications e long-term implications
In the specific case of West Indians and the bias incidents in New York, the authorities need to recognize that, as voluntary immigrants, West Indians generally have a greater degree of trust of the system than they are given credit for. The government can build on the trust already there, not by denying that discrimination has taken place and not by reacting as if the West Indians have an oppositional identity simply because they are black, but by emphasizing the neutrality and fairness of the institutions and people in place to deal with the incidents.

The final case of involuntary minorities is the most difficult for state officials. It is essential to understand the logic of their history and the nature of their identities. Involuntary minorities with oppositional identities require greater reassurance by the state, since they see systematic oppression where dominant group members only see accidents or individual rather than group events. These oppositional identities tend to lead to the expression of grievances and hostility outside of established procedures if only because of a lack of trust in criminal justice institutions. Special care must be taken to demonstrate the state's neutrality and commitment to equal justice.

This is an especially difficult goal, since one way in which the state generally guarantees neutrality is to have minority representation. Such representation may work better for voluntary immigrants than for involuntary minorities such as black Americans. For them, the presence of members of their group in government may not be enough. An oppositional identity presupposes that members of the group who work within the power structure instead of outside it or against it are betraying their group. In accord with the analysis developed by John Ogbu in the field of education, and developed further here, an African-American official of the government or the police risks being accused of "acting white" simply because of his or her ties to a power structure which is perceived as being anti-black in its very nature. Black representatives in the government need to be prepared for the possibility that their very identity as a member of the black group will be challenged. To demonstrate how they can be both members of the black group and part of the power structure requires proof that the power structure is not opposed to the group identities. Considering the way in which past history has shaped the development of oppositional identities, this is bound to be a very difficult undertaking.


1. Asians are an exception to this dichotomy. Those who stress the castelike experience of Asians point to the severe restrictions on their immigration as examples of the ways in which their racial status gave them a very different experience

2. Migrants from Caribbean countries are all coming from societies where racism exists. There is much literature describing the racial stratification in the Caribbean (Hoetink, 1967). But there is also growing evidence that immigrants to the United States from these countries tend to "forget" or consciously downplay the racism which existed in their home society. There is also a very big difference between the racism which exists in countries where blacks are the overwhelming majority and those, like the United States, in which they are the minority.

3. Tawana Brawley was a young woman in upstate New York who was found beaten and cut and who claimed that she was raped and attacked by a white policeman. Although the incident did not occur in New York City proper, it became a cause for some of New York's most outspoken black political leaders and aroused a great deal of concern and anger in New York's black community. It was later discovered that the entire claim was a hoax. Tawana was apparently a very troubled young woman who inflicted the wounds on herself and concocted the story. While the fact that the incident was a hoax appears to be accepted by the majority of law enforcement and moderate black leaders in the area, and while Tawana has confessed that it was a hoax, a very considerable minority of blacks in New York - some might argue a majority of inner-city poor blacks - still believe that Tawana was telling the truth and that there has been a cover-up. I do not deal with the Tawana Brawley case in this paper because it was a hoax and not a real incident, and because it did not occur inside New York City. At the same time, many of the statements made about the case by African American leaders will fit the analysis l am making here.

4. In this case, yet another West Indian might just as easily have been a victim, because one of the boys along with Yusef on the night he was killed and who was also attacked by the mob was a West Indian, Luther Sylvester.


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