Race Becomes What It Was in the Bad Old Days


Washington. -- Race has long been a thorny issue in crime stories, as it is in American life. Big city newspapers like the one where I work used to routinely announce the race of criminals who were "Negro" or "colored," an annoyingly racist custom forever immortalized in yellowed newspaper clippings and mercifully discontinued in the '60s, by the time "Negroes" became "black."

Race must be "germane," relevant to the story, a former managing editor of mine declared. It is a rule that I think still makes good sense. Unfortunately, changing times have blurred the line between crime stories in which race is germane and those in which it is not.

In the videotaped Rodney King and Reginald Denny beating cases, race quickly became not only germane to the story but it became the story itself.

Race became germane during the Los Angeles riots, although at least one local television reporter tried to tiptoe gently around the race question by announcing that "two black gentlemen" were smashing windows and jumping on cars.

Race became germane again after Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan's father was murdered when callers to black talk-radio stations wondered whether he might have been done in by Southern whites jealous of his fine car. The two male suspects turned out to be a black and a Lumbee Indian.

A reporter on ABC's "Day One" recently threw all caution to the winds when he announced that all the victims in the Florida tourist murders were white and all the suspects were young blacks.

Was race germane to that story? This also is the age of "hate crimes," a new offense in American law books that the Supreme Court approved earlier this year, which makes race even more germane to crime stories in which any sort of racial bigotry is expressed.

Which brings up the recent series of robberies and murders of Korean merchants in the District of Columbia. One particularly brutal jewelry-store holdup received attention on network television, thanks to a security camera. It showed three black men robbing a jewelry store, beating one middle-aged male clerk, shouting and dragging a female clerk around and hitting her in the face with the butt of a gun and sweeping the contents of the jewelry counter into a bag. Finally, one of the invaders pumped three shots into the body of the defenseless store owner. Pop! Pop! Pop!

Horrified Washingtonians flooded police telephone lines with leads, according to news broadcasts. Three suspects have been charged.

Is race germane to this story? Tensions between blacks and Koreans (not to mention blacks and Jews and blacks and Hispanics) have been so much in the news that it is hard to ignore a pattern of attacks against Koreans in a predominantly black city like Washington. Yet I am troubled by the failure of modern media or community leaders to learn much from the mistakes of the past. When crime coverage mentions race today, it seldom advances us toward a cure. Instead, it tends to make us more angry and afraid, pulling us apart instead of bringing us together.

Little insight is offered into the conditions that contribute to the nation's current wave of high-profile violence. As a result, race becomes what it was in the bad old days: a signal to whites to stay away from blacks and a signal to blacks that whites don't care about crime as long as most of its victims are black.

In recent days, the nation's capital has seen Jesse Jackson speak at the grave of a 4-year-old black girl caught in the crossfire of black gangs. It has heard Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly call for National Guard troops to patrol the city streets. It has seen a 100-car motorcade of Korean-Americans roll silently past the White House to protest the death of a 50-year-old Korean-American woman killed in her dry-cleaning shop. It has heard Hillary Clinton on CNN promise to target the nation's "sick, sick symptom" of violence, once she has put the nation's health-care crisis behind her.

Why can't these folks work together? Or are we divided by our common problems?

Who's at fault? There's plenty of blame to go around. All of us -- whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native American Indians and whoever else -- need to stop pointing fingers of blame and start lifting some fingers of responsibility.

The old liberal wisdom held society to blame for all criminal problems. The new conservative wisdom exonerates society and puts the blame on personal responsibility.

Actually, both theories are at least partly right. Every individual bears personal responsibility for his or her actions. You commit the crime, you do the time. But a society bears responsibility for its condition, too, and our society is in a breathtak- ingly violent condition.

Although the roots of black crime can be found in poverty and prejudice, a new, angry, nihilism seems to have gripped a growing number of the ghetto poor. It grows out of violent childhoods and truncated opportunities, and it seems to be feeding on itself, reducing the sense that one's own life or anyone else's has value.

Problems do have solutions. Unfortunately, news media are better equipped to tell us the "what" about crime than the "why." As a result, I think we give blacks and whites more reasons for hostility than ways to work together.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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