A Tale of Two Cities: "Rational Racism," Amadou Diallo, and Us
much for the conservative principle of "personal responsibility,"
which conveniently goes out the window if applying it might interfere with the
prerogatives of whiteness: in this case, the prerogative to label a group of
people deviant, and treat individual members of that group on the basis of the
designation. Funny, coming from folks who criticize affirmative action because
it ostensibly treats folks on the basis of group membership. Note: at least
affirmative action never killed anyone. Would that the NYPD could say the same.
for the second, and seemingly unrelated locale, consider this: recent news
reports note that Forsythe County, Georgia-about 30 miles outside Atlanta-is now
the fasting growing community of its size in the United States.
this honor had been bestowed upon any other place, it is unlikely I would have
written about it. But Forsythe County is special to me, because it was the first
place I was required to spill blood-not by choice-in the fight for racial
equity. In 1987, civil rights demonstrators, myself included, marched in the
county to protest the fact that Forsythe whites had kept any blacks from moving
into the area for over a half-century. During our demonstration, many of us were
struck by spit, sticks, and rocks, the latter of which caused a gash in the back
of my head that took several days to heal.
yet, thirteen years later, this county-which still has only a handful of black
residents and remains home to many of the bigots who attacked us and justified
their racism on one of the very first episodes of Oprah-is the hot place to be:
leading one to wonder, just what would draw people to Forsythe, given this
the answer is the same thing that causes white cops in the Bronx to shoot a
black man who reaches for his wallet because they assume he has a gun: namely,
"rational" racism. In Georgia, this means whites who are largely
fleeing the "chocolate city" of Atlanta, to find what they refer to as
"good schools" and "safe neighborhoods," by which they
mean-but are not honest enough to admit-white schools and white neighborhoods.
In the lexicon of American racism, "good" and "safe" have
become synonymous in the white mind with whites, and "bad" and
"dangerous" synonymous with black, and this is a truism in Georgia,
New York, and all places inbetween.
Forsythe to be the fastest growing area of its kind in the country is not-cannot
be seen as-simply a race-neutral human interest story: not with the county's
background; a background about which most adults moving there from surrounding
cities and suburbs are surely aware. This place is known to be white, not by
accident, but on purpose; and yet, there they come, with their families in tow,
to find that "safe" place to live. No one asks if it's safe for folks
with dark skin, or whites who speak out against racism. We already know the
answer to that question, but of course, that's not a safety about which the
residents of Forsythe, new or old, are likely concerned.
would have thought Gwinnett County-bordering Atlanta-was white enough. After
all, this is an area where citizens voted against connecting with Atlanta by
commuter rail, despite the fact that with their vote, they were consigning
themselves to continued long commute times and interminable traffic jams. But at
least they wouldn't be making it easier for black Atlantans to take advantage of
the two-way nature of public transport, and perhaps hustle it out to the 'burbs
themselves. Such is the price white folks will pay to live apart from black and
brown people: longer commutes, and the corresponding higher gas and car
maintenance bills, to say nothing of costlier mortgages. Such is the
"rationality" of our racism.
yes, I said "our" racism, because despite what folks tell you, it
isn't just "other" whites who think this stuff about "good and
safe" places, or who are predisposed to view blacks as violent. So
ingrained is the notion of danger as black and blacks as dangerous, that
immediately following the verdict in the Diallo case, the most common thing
discussed among whites it seemed-and this was true for liberal and left-leaning
whites as well as conservatives-was whether or not the verdict would touch off
rioting in the black community.
think about that; and ask yourself if you, even for a moment, wondered or
worried about this same thing; and then ask what the likely answer says about
the way this racist mentality has affected us. After all, to jump so quickly to
the concern about "rioting" in this case, is to assume that black and
brown folks can't control their anger; it is to believe they are perpetually on
a powder-keg, just waiting to burn shit to the ground, and all it takes to set 'em
off is one more thing. But, these same folks live with constant indignities
meted out by the justice system, economic system, housing, financial and
educational institutions of this society, such that "one more thing"
happens every day before lunch. If blacks were so "crazy" they rioted
every time they found themselves on the short end of a jury verdict in this
country, there'd be no property left to burn.
is black and brown riots are rare, and always have been. But whites have
developed our own way of rioting, our own way of lashing out that is nothing if
not frequent: namely, to move far from black and brown people, and empower
"our" police to do whatever it takes to "protect and serve"
us. Instead of destroying black property the way we did back in the day, when
"they" forgot "their place," we just make sure their
property won 't be anywhere near ours: and we do this with zoning laws, and
lending discrimination under the guise of "actuarial analysis," and
blockbusting, and de facto redlining. Over half the counties in the nation have
less than 250 blacks, and over 80% of the country's whites live in communities
with hardly any people of color around them-and it wouldn't be that way if at
some level we didn't prefer that it be so.
suburban whites in Minneapolis-fairly liberal by national standards-67% of whom
in a 1993 survey said white suburban kids should be sent to predominantly black
schools in the city, but only seven percent of whom said they'd be willing to
send their own child.
Metairie, Louisiana, where over half of all whites admit they moved to the
area-just outside of New Orleans-to escape black people.
Montgomery County, Maryland, where poor whites, according to the Washington
Post, have sacrificed coveted slots on public housing wait lists, just to avoid
being placed in a mostly black development.
Matteson, Illinois, where an increasing number of black residents prompted a
mass exodus of whites, despite the fact that crime declined, schools improved
and property values grew throughout the transition period.
of whites say they prefer to live in a community with no more than 10% people of
color, and a recent Russell Sage Foundation study found that whites typically
consider even lower-income white communities with lower housing values,
preferable to higher income, more prosperous communities with large percentages
of people of color.
all of it is justified and rationalized on the same grounds: fear of crime, fear
of bad schools, fear-plain and simple. The same fear that the Albany jury
ratified as a legitimate defense for murder by police; the same
"rational" racism that started as mere theory, and has now proven
fatal. And so long as we make excuses for the fear, and act on the basis of it,
and fail to challenge it in ourselves and others, we'll be just as guilty as
those officers who killed Diallo. And we'll have little basis upon which to
condemn them, acting as they did on the same impulses which so often animate us
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org