'Aberrant' Racism and Other Kinds


National outrage greeted the broadcast video recording of Los Angeles police officers kicking and beating a black motorist they had stopped for a traffic violation, highlighting a problem long swept under the rug.

Reporters quickly unearthed the fact that Los Angeles' police department had paid escalating settlements on lawsuits by victims of unjustified attacks by officers over the last decade.

Chief Daryl Gates, defending his department, made the claim early on that the beating of Rodney King in full view of complaining onlookers was an aberration. Other observers noted that over seven years, almost every one of the LAPD cases involving the setting of police dogs on unresisting victims also involved a minority victim.

That's despite the finding that whites committed nearly a third of the crimes to which police responded with dogs. Note also that report by Los Angeles' own analysts,that the city shelled out $9 million for awards in 140 police-brutality lawsuits. The chief's claim flies in the face of reports by some of Chief Gates' own officers, blacks who made public the horror stories they have lived through serving beside whites in the uniform of L.A.'s finest.

U.S. Justice Department probers, picking up on a drumbeat of police-brutality complaints across the country, are finally gearing to look for a pattern. People who remember the rash of riots Miami endured over police killings and unjustified force, or saw news accounts of the indictment of several New York police officers accused of choking a Hispanic man to death, could respond that the pattern has always been visible for those who looked.

Still, it appears that for all the national uproar, the real pattern lies ignored even yet.

Who can doubt that the racist fury of the officers who descended on Rodney King is really the same asthe racist fury of the crowd that beat and shot to death young Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, New York, or of the crowd that attacked and stabbed to death Harold Parker, a black man slain last July for being "in the wrong neighborhood" and having the temerity to come back after being harassed? The color of the clothes L.A.'s finest wore is certainly different, as is the oath of public service each in the crowd of 15 officers surrounding Mr. King conveniently laid aside.

The hatred expressed is not different at all, however. The enmity that surfaces in such incidents, often submerged but never far enough from the surface that a "Willie Horton" presidential campaign cannot use it to advantage, is broadly available in these United States.

Is there anyone out there who still believes, then, that the same prejudices and will to be unreasonable are not at work when minorities show up at the office looking for jobs?

Quite the contrary. Racism in employment is linked directly to the discrimination blacks and other minorities have endured in nearly every area of American life. It is the root of the "hypersegregation" two University of Chicago researchers found walling blacks out of many sections of our cities and suburbs, of the clearly patterned discrimination identified by the Atlanta Constitution in its landmark investigation of bank lending practices not long ago.

Attempting to separate discrimination by type, divorcing it from a VTC central discriminatory urge that still runs like a stain across the national culture, only results in confusing the issue.

That may be what some opponents of a broad campaign to renew America's commitments on civil rights have in mind. It bears repeating, 127 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the U.S. Congress debated the worth and propriety of slavery for 75 years before the Civil War.

We still have whites who repeat the mantra that "you can't legislate morality" at the first sign of a new push, but the criminal code does that all the time. One law, 18 U.S. Code Section 242 and its cousins, originally drafted in 1866, will figure big in the federal courts' treatment of police officers found to be abusing minorities.

Congress is now making yet another attempt to pass a civil-rights act to address the discrimination minorities meet in the workplace. Linking it to the discrimination complaints of women as well, lawmakers are struggling to find a formula President Bush will accept.

Mr. Bush, for his part, has started a drumbeat of his own, raising the bogus issue of "quotas" as he did last year, the third U.S. president in history to veto a civil-rights law. The denounced 1990 bill had been watered down with 30 amendments to suit Mr. Bush's objections and remove any possibility of enforced quota hiring.

Mr. Bush, flush with victory in the Persian Gulf, offered up an even weaker bill of his own as the House of Representatives began work on a rewrite, designed to restore the balance knocked awry by a Supreme Court majority that has seemed intent on shutting down all civil rights litigation. The House Judiciary Committee defeated Mr. Bush's alternative with little ado, but his next move is still to be seen.

In the meantime, a festering sore called racism continues to spread pain, periodically bursting to the top of society's consciousness as in L.A., to the dismay of the nation.

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