• U.S.

Endangered Species

3 minute read
Jack E. White

No matter what the courts eventually decide about the police shooting in New York City of Amadou Diallo, the mild-mannered African immigrant who was laid to rest in his native Guinea last week, many African Americans will agree with Johnnie Cochran that Diallo’s death was yet another summary execution of an innocent black man by white racist cops. How else would you describe four members of an elite anticrime squad with a reputation for aggressiveness firing 41 shots at a skinny 22-year-old street merchant armed with nothing but a pager?

Well, you could call it business as usual. The sad truth is that in far too many places in America, black life is cheap. As outrageous as the police conduct in the Diallo case seems to have been, it is only a highly publicized example of the slaughter that has made black men an endangered species. Despite overall declines in the homicide rate, murder at the hands of another black man remained the leading cause of death for black males ages 15 to 24 through much of the ’90s.

The underlying causes of the carnage–drugs, poor schooling, high unemployment and the breakdown of the family–are no secret. But there’s another factor that gets less attention: the conduct of the police. The Black Panthers may be defunct, but many inner-city residents agree with them that the cops are an occupation army more concerned with keeping minorities in check than with fighting crime. Special squads like the N.Y.P.D.’s street-crime unit, whose members killed Diallo, stop and frisk tens of thousands of people whose only crime is being black. Despite lawsuits by the A.C.L.U., African-American motorists are routinely pulled over by police in many states for DWB–driving while black. Such tactics make it clear that to some cops, every black male is a suspect.

Decades of police abuse have completely destroyed inner-city residents’ confidence in the criminal-justice system, argues Elijah Anderson, a social scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his forthcoming book, Code of the Streets: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City. The result is an every-man-a-vigilante mentality that makes violence inevitable. “Even decent people in inner-city neighborhoods are so distrustful of the police that they feel they have no choice but to take matters of personal defense into their own hands,” says Anderson. “Instead of relying on the police to protect them, they let other people know that they can defend themselves with overwhelming force, which these days means having a gun and being willing to use it.” The inflated sense of confidence that packing a gun engenders, especially in young men, can easily escalate a petty argument into a fatal confrontation. Step on somebody’s shoes, and you could wind up dead.

Anderson says the heavy-handed tactics police employ to control the violence only make things worse, because they convince the vast majority of law-abiding inner-city residents that cops are the enemy. Unfortunately, too many people–and too many politicians, such as New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani–have not made the connection. As Hugh Price of the National Urban League puts it, even poor people have “a right to be protected by the police, not be preyed on by them.” Until the cops figure that out, it will be open season on black men.

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