The R-Word

Rudy plays race like a violin. Why won't white folks name that tune?

But one night Nelson encountered what Times editorial writers call "the unpleasant side" of policing. He was stopped and grilled, and when he protested that he was an auxiliary cop, Nelson was forced onto the ground and roughed up. When it was over, he had a charge of resisting arrest. His grandmother helped him file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but it took them 10 months to respond. By that time, "we were fed up," Nelson's grandmother says. And by then Nelson had given up his dream of becoming a cop. "He got a taste of what they're like up here," says his grandmother. "They changed his life that night."

Alvin Poussaint, the renowned Harvard psychiatrist, grew up in East Harlem, and he has his own horror stories to relate. As a teenager in the 1950s, Poussaint was stopped by police in Central Park while walking a white woman to the subway. After excoriating the woman for running with "niggers," one cop knocked Poussaint against a tree, snarling, "I'll bet you're coming in your pants, you son of a bitch."

Things have changed in one respect: police no longer feel entitled to accost interracial couples. But the more common practice Poussaint vividly recalls— moving black kids along— has been revived by Giuliani as part of his quality-of-life campaign. In the Village, for example, police cruise blocks where young blacks and Latinos congregate, shouting through loudspeakers, "Get off the street." Kids who resist this order are liable to be lined up against the nearest wall.

The intense feelings of helplessness such incidents provoke are the real reason why they occur so frequently. Frisking an entire population lets them know who's boss. These days, that point is being pounded home with a special desperation, and not just because of crime. Whites are already a minority in New York City, and soon they will be a minority at the ballot box. The citizens of White Ethnica won't be able to combine their numbers with the assets of the corporate elite to elect a mayor who honors their fears. Unless people of color allow themselves to be divided and conquered, they will prevail— and it will be their fears that get expressed at the polls. As white resentment of this new majority reaches a fever pitch, the polarization of political life in the city will grow even more extreme.

It hardly helps to indict four cops for cutting down a black man in cold blood. That's like putting foot soldiers on trial at Nuremberg while leaving the commandants free to run for higher office. The only way to stem the tide of racism is to call those who loose it what they are. After all, what would we have called a Jim Crow sheriff whose police stopped black men on the street as a matter of course? Or a top cop who broke up a black rally by sending helicopters swooping down on the crowd while police charged the stage? What would we call a mayor who consistently failed to appoint blacks to his administration and refused to meet with black leaders?

Why can't white people apply the R-word to one of their own? "I think it has to do with the unwillingness of those who name to be named," says Maurice Berger, author of the just- published memoir White Lies. "It's almost a conspiracy of self-protection." Given the power of this reflex, it's impossible for anyone in the mainstream media to call Giuliani a racist, though he has a long record of disregard for African Americans, stemming back to his days as a U.S. attorney whose office initiated few civil rights cases and lagged in minority hiring. All his political life, Giuliani has dodged the R-word, even as he threw it at critical blacks, accusing Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, for example, of putting "a race overlay" on everything. Giuliani has never had to fear that what goes around will come around.

In a more candid time, we might acknowledge the real reason for Rudy's success. His singular achievement has been to preserve the power imbalance that denies the real vitality of New York. He made the trains run on time— and "the colored" run for their lives.

Research: Steph Watts

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