PRINT December 1989


The New Racism

THE NEW YORK METROPOLITAN area this summer treated itself to several weeks of openly virulent bigotry, violence, and death, played out in the pages of local papers and the nightly TV news. Another black man was killed by a white mob for the sin of setting foot in the mob’s pristine Brooklyn neighborhood, an attack similar to the 1986 Howard Beach killing in Queens. In that crime, one image replayed in the media and the mind again and again: Michael Griffith’s broken, sheet-covered body lying at the side of the highway onto which whites had chased him and where he was struck by a car and killed.

But there is no single compelling image left of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, who had gone to the Bensonhurst area in Brooklyn with three friends in response to an ad for a used car. He was killed on a Wednesday night, and one of the only available pictures of the dying boy didn’t run in papers until Friday. To New Yorkers, he is just a name now, a victim without a striking image to represent him in death.

The images that do remain vivid are of white Bensonhurst residents yelling “Niggers go home,” “You savages,” and “Long live South Africa” at the mainly black demonstrators who staged four marches in Bensonhurst to affirm the right of black citizens to walk the streets of New York. News pictures repeatedly ran of flaccid-faced white boys and paunchy white men, in undershirts and gold chains, fists flailing and ugly mouths stretched wide, braying their jackal incantations for all the world to hear. “We don’t go to Harlem, the kids were in the wrong spot,” one 22-year-old goon was quoted as saying. “This is Bensonhurst. It is all Italian. We don’t need these niggers.” How many Bensonhurst scrapbooks contain the triumphant front-page antics of these guys, who attained a kind of small-time immortality by belching forth their own ignorance and blight?

But let’s face it: the repellent vermin of Bensonhurst didn’t cook this bigot stew alone. For 12 long years they’ve had a ready ally in the now-defeated mayor of New York City, the onerous Edward I. Koch. On a Monday morning four days after the murder, the good mayor attacked the weekend marchers for “inflaming” racial tensions. “I am talking about what is helpful to the city,” the mayor bleated. “Lowering the passions, lowering the rhetoric.” So it’s the image of African-Americans staging peaceful demonstrations that’s to blame for fanning the fires of racism. We’re not going to bother with simply blaming the victim any more. (What was he doing in this neighborhood at 10 o’clock at night? one irate Bensonhurst resident asked, as if being in a place—at 9:20 p.m., actually—were sufficient cause for condemnation and death.) We’re also going to blame anyone who dares to stand up for the victim, anyone who opposes or exposes the racism that is seeping through this city—and this entire country—like pus from a festering wound.

The murder and attendant callousness could almost have been predicted. The white political hierarchy has been working on reintroducing racism as an acceptable form of social discourse since Ronald Reagan’s first term. His attacks on federally funded social services and the “wastefulness” of big government were barely concealed attacks on poor blacks and Hispanics, who are portrayed in the media as the prime beneficiaries of such programs, although white poverty stands at equally appalling levels. After eight years of Reagan’s scorn for the poor, it was not too difficult to start putting the scorn in definitive shape. For New Yorkers, it easily made itself felt during the primary race for mayor.

A political columnist such as New York magazine’s Joe Klein, for example, felt comfortable enough tossing racist suppositions around last June to postulate that Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing could incite violence in black viewers and thus hurt black mayoral candidate David Dinkins’ chances at the polls. “If Lee does hook large black audiences, there’s a good chance the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions in the city,” wrote Klein. “If they react violently—which can’t be ruled out—the candidate with the most to lose will be David Dinkins.” (Emphasis added.) Trying to imagine a reverse situation, in which a black journalist speculated in print about the possibility of a white director stirring up white violence against blacks, points up even more vividly how outrageous this line of reasoning is.

No matter where we look for the roots of contemporary racism in the U.S., one explanation for its unashamedly public character is clear. The infamous Willie Horton television ad, made on behalf of George Bush’s 1988 presidential bid, validated racism in the service of convenience and ambition and so encouraged it to flourish in the full light of day. The social proscriptions built up over the last twenty-five years, which made Americans temper and hide their racism, were swept away by Bush’s backers. And although the Bush campaign disavowed the ad—it was made by an “independent” group, the National Security Political Action Committee, which was not officially affiliated with the Bush campaign—the group’s leaders claimed that they had “the tacit support of senior officials in the Bush campaign.” The committee’s founder, Elizabeth I. Fediay, also told the New York Times that “Officially the campaign has to disavow themselves from me. Unofficially, I hear that they’re thrilled about what we’re doing.”

That the Bush campaign was unofficially thrilled is an understatement. His handlers protested that they disavowed the ad and Fediay’s committee—they penned a letter noting that Bush did not “endorse nor approve” of the group’s “activities”—and then figuratively threw up their hands in mock frustration as nightly the racist ad bludgeoned television audiences. But when Bush campaign manager (and Reagan’s secretary of the treasury) James Baker was sent a letter by the committee’s media buyer offering to call off an impending 28-day run of the ad on cable TV, Baker waited until three days before the run concluded to respond. It was a canny move for a campaign manager, but an unacceptable one for a man who is now Bush’s secretary of state.

Despite the major media’s occasional dissections of this issue, one important point went unexamined. George Bush wasn’t a powerless candidate for the presidency being victimized by his opponents: he was vice president of the United States. That he allowed the Horton ad to be broadcast in his name while he did virtually nothing to stop it thus proclaimed that both the text and subtext of the ad were in some sense government policy. Calling the ad a “campaign ploy” or a “no-holds-barred bid for the White House,” as the media did, helped compartmentalize and trivialize it, as if it were “only” political advertising and as insignificant and transitory as the latest campaign for Nike or Sprite.

It would be going too far to pin the murder of Yusuf Hawkins on Baker or Bush. Yet the Horton ad did harm Hawkins in one major way. It made it impossible to see the image of that 16-year-old for who and what he was: a kid shot down in cold blood because he was black. Instead, the oppressive image of Willie Horton continues to linger just below the level of consciousness—a filter through which all black men are seen. Guilty until proven innocent, the dead black child’s presence in Bensonhurst was what was suspect, rather than the beliefs and acts that caused his murder.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.