Portraits in Prejudice


The Hiram Ashantee that Khallid Abdul Muhammad and other members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense say they know shuns white women and teaches that the black woman is “goddess of the universe.” In fact, according to Muhammad, Ashantee also preaches “that the white woman is the devil—not [just] a devil, but the devil.” So imagine national chairman Muhammad’s dismay when Ashantee, the Panther’s national field marshal, popped up as a guest in the CBS Big Brother house and, as Muhammad put it, “reached to feel on the backside of a white woman.”

As hard as it may be for some to accept, the views Muhammad ascribes to Ashantee are typical of Americans, who rarely bite their tongues when they talk about race. “Fuck the N-word!” some whites say. “The blacks are straight-up niggers.” Some African Americans retort with an unflattering view of “Barbara Bitch” (that “straight-up-and-down Ms. Six O’Clock”—”no frills, no thrills, white cave bitch with an itch”). And of course there’s Columbia “Jew-niversity,” where they educate the “bloodsuckers of the black community.” Although some critics panned the Big Brother episodes that included Ashantee, others say they gave a rare insight into how race is really lived in America.

Three weeks ago, CBS began airing Big Brother, the voyeuristic series in which 10 strangers are sequestered in a camera-filled house for three months. Gradually, the group is whittled down to a winner, who gets a $500,000 prize. Ashantee, who describes himself in a bio as a 27-year-old youth counselor from Philadelphia, was a provocateur who spent much of his two weeks fighting with fellow residents. On the opening edition, he had a heated debate about prejudice with Brittany and was involved in an expletive-laden, racially tense shouting match with Eddie, a college student.

But some viewers, as well as Ashantee’s fellow residents, did not appreciate his outspokenness. On July 14, the Daily News reported that Ashantee, who used the name William Collins on the show, is a follower of Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam minister who was ousted from the black Muslim group for calling Jews “bloodsuckers.” The News, which headlined the story “Oh, Brother!” printed a picture of Ashantee holding a rifle during a Texas protest march. Last Thursday, Ashantee became the first contestant kicked out by fellow house members and viewers. He was voted out by a nearly three-to-one margin.

Several hours before Ashantee would be banished from the house on live TV, Muhammad summoned reporters to a mosque in West Philadelphia to air his disgust about his “Li’l Brother’s” surprise defection from the New Black Panther Party and condemn on behalf of the black woman—”The Mother of Civilization, the Queen of the Planet Earth”—his alleged cavorting with white women in the Big Brother household.

“They say [referring to black women] that they have heard you tell one white woman how gorgeous she is, and how beautiful she is on the show, and how you would not vote against her because you want her to remain around until the end of the show so that you’ll have something beautiful to look at,” said Muhammad, who was flanked by about 25 members of the Philadelphia chapter of the Panthers. “They go on to say,” added Muhammad with his signature sneer, “that you have not given such compliments, such attention, to the really gorgeous black woman who is the only black woman, [who is] a so-called house guest on the show.”

In one bathroom scene, a white female complains to Ashantee about the shape of her buttocks, wishing she was a tad bigger. The muscle-bound Ashantee, wearing a white towel around his waist, appears sympathetic. He massages the woman’s ass, asking her what the fuss is all about—her behind might grow to the size she wants.

Muhammad lampooned the sweet talk and suggestive groping: “They say that they have seen you in the bathroom with her—she had all of her clothes on but you were only clad in your towel—and that the two of you engaged in conversation about booty and butt [and that] in the earlier series you had told the other white women to shake their booties for you. . . . All across the country, they speak of you and how you tried to get her to unwrap the lower part of her body and expose herself to you, and when she wouldn’t do it how you told her she was cheating you by not unwrapping and exposing herself. Cameras all over the house. Your people hurting all over the country. We love you, young brother Hiram Ashantee. But we hope that you can explain this for us, that you can answer some of these questions. Some of them hurt the black woman—[angry] over seeing you massage the white woman—give her a massage and run your hands all over her body after they have heard you teach and preach that the white woman is the devil—not a devil—but the devil.”

Despite his anger at Ashantee, Muhammad spoke like a “Big Brother” in denial, while attempting to mask his disbelief about the betrayal in the outrage of others. “Black brothers and black sisters sit in circles,” he cried, “hurt over what they say are your comments in the house about the red, black, and green black liberation flag; how [you said] you’re not one to wave the flag or you’re not one running around, carrying the red, black, and green black liberation flag as a champion for black causes . . . when we all remember you carrying the red, black, and green flag. Oh, my brother, we just want to hear from you.” Muhammad kept the door to the “Black Nation” open, with the “sincere hope and prayer that what we have seen on the television screen . . . is just a good job of acting” by Ashantee, who might be thinking up a plan to “clear all of this up, which appears to be counter-revolutionary conduct.”

In the last five minutes of the banishment episode, CBS Early Show newsreader Julie Chen, who anchored the one-hour Big Brother show, brought up the Daily News report linking Ashantee to Muhammad. Ashantee defended Muhammad, saying there should be more activists like him. He added, however, that he had not been an active Party member for four months. Unless he totally renounces his role in the group, Ashantee can’t be banished from the “liberated zone,” the separatist New Africa the Panthers hope to set up. “In the black community, and in rap music culture, there is what is called a ‘Ghetto Pass,’ ” Muhammad declared. “We are gathered here today because we don’t want our brother, and my Li’l Brother, Hiram Ashantee—slave name William Collins—to have his ‘Ghetto Pass’ revoked. We don’t want him to lose his ‘Ghetto Pass.’ ”

While Khallid Abdul Muhammad does not share the integrationist aspirations of the people portrayed in “How Race Is Lived in America,” the 15-part series about the state of race relations as examined by The New York Times, neither does Michael DePompo. In a recent letter to me, DePompo, who lives in one of the outer boroughs, vents, using suspected criminal behavior by blacks and Latinos as a euphemism for the racial tension he feels keeps the city on edge.

What ticked DePompo off was my July 18 article, “Cocaine and Conspiracy: Were the Deaths in Custody of Two Suspected Drug Users ‘Accidental’ or Police Brutality?” Relatives and friends of Maliki Raymond and Dionicio Medrano, both 24, had raised doubts about unrelated events that led to fatal drug overdoses by the young men, who were black and Latino. Instead of showing compassion, DePompo invoked bigotry.

“Am I supposed to feel sorry for them?” he asks. “I don’t think so. I wish people would stop defending criminals and drug addicts and make them responsible for their own actions.” So what if cops allegedly used brutal force to apprehend Raymond and Medrano? “The police had to deal with this scum,” DePompo adds, “and a beating here and there [helps] them.” He blames the victims’ families for their deaths, dredging up timeworn, racist theories about dysfunctional minority households.

“It’s a beating they never got at home, because mommy was too busy out meeting guys and daddy was nowhere to be found,” DePompo asserts. “It is a shame they died. But you know what, if they had lived, they would have continued a life of crime—[they would] have put innocent people in danger and cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars in court and prison costs. Just think of this as saving society.”

Strong language? That was DePompo’s warm-up tirade, the hallmark of a bigot. Apart from his distaste for my “defense of criminals,” DePompo confesses he doesn’t feel safe in the presence of blacks and Latinos, who he suspects are prone to assault him and other whites as they commute to and from the city. “[W]ith your thinking,” he scolds me, “I am supposed to feel sorry for these lowlifes.”

According to DePompo, “a black guy, definitely on some sort of drug” got on a train in Staten Island, recently. “He sits down and starts playing his boombox, and very loud. Now we are all commuters, going home from an honest day of work, none of us need to hear this.” Although enraged by the black commuter’s uncouth behavior, he says nothing. But another white man protests. “A gentleman sitting next to him asks him to stop playing the radio. Now the black guy is yelling, cursing and threatening him. ‘If I had my knife I would stab you, you white motherfucker!’ Real nice, and very racial, I may add,” says DePompo, reflecting on the encounter.

DePompo claims that the obnoxious “black guy” began talking with two other black men while “eyeing” the white commuter who was complaining to the conductor. When the white man got off at his stop, the black men “run out and jump him.” In DePompo’s story, the potential murderers were promptly apprehended. “Luckily there were six police academy cadets and two undercover cops on the train to help or the white guy would have been killed,” he contends. “Bad enough, he was cut and bleeding.”

Shortly after that alleged incident, DePompo and some friends had another run-in with two unruly commuters. Off the bat, DePompo assumed that the men, one whom he determined to be Puerto Rican, the other white, were “obvious drug addicts.”

“One is drinking a beer, the other is pulling down his pants to show an elderly woman his butt. Next they decide to sit [next to] us, and they get into our conversation and start asking us where do we think drugs come from. We are ignoring them because they are looking for trouble.” The “drug addicts” then begin “talking about Mayor Rudy Giuliani having sex with 13-year-old girls, and President Clinton bringing in drugs to this country.”

Again, DePompo relies on one of his white friends to speak out. “One of my friends tells them to leave us alone, we . . . work hard all day and are discussing things,” he claims. “They start cursing at us and we think they are going to start fighting. Everything was quiet, and then their stop came and they got off. We were very lucky, because who knows if these criminals had guns or knives on them and what they were capable of. We just wished there were police officers on the train who would have thrown these criminals off.”

DePompo is annoyed that such criminals aren’t summarily punished. “It is amazing that our p.c. society has come to the point where we are to cower down to people like this instead of giving them what they rightfully deserve. Jail time!” He ends by urging me to open my eyes and “see what is really going on in this city—see what the police and good citizens” like him must deal with every day. “Maybe you should start writing about the victims of the lowlifes and criminals,” he advises.

I write about commuters DePompo probably would like to see stopped for driving while black. In another letter to me, an unidentified black New Yorker recalls the flap over a 1996 photograph that shows New Jersey’s Republican governor, Christine Whitman, frisking a black man on a Camden street corner during a state police drug raid. The photograph, taken by an officer, was subpoenaed in May by black and Latino troopers who claim their superiors discriminated against them.

Some criticize Whitman for participating in an illegal search. Blacks say the picture demonstrates racial profiling and harassment, and is a prime example of official racism. Whitman’s first term opened with a scandal about a campaign adviser who bragged about payoffs to black church leaders. Later, in an interview with a British newspaper, Whitman, who amazingly is viewed as a “moderate” Republican, spoke of a game supposedly played by black males with the goal of impregnating girls. She later apologized for the remark.

In 1998, a year into her second term, two troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike wounded three minority passengers in a van. The shooting triggered protests and internal investigations of racial profiling: the practice of stopping motorists strictly on the basis of race. Since then, Whitman has fired the head of the state police, admitted that troopers targeted black motorists statewide, and promised to end racial profiling. Protesters who claim Whitman has been insensitive to minorities plan demonstrations against her timed with the Republican National Convention. One will take place on the Camden waterfront just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and about a dozen blocks from the corner where she was photographed smilingly frisking the black suspect.

The black letter writer does not mince words. “If Christine Whitman’s daughter had been stopped by the police in a random search and Al Sharpton, who was riding with the police to monitor stop searches, was given permission by the police to pat search her child, everybody would have been outraged. For Whitman to scream that this is all politics is missing the point. This is about somebody who has no jurisdiction to search an innocent person twice. It is about the dehumanizing of an innocent member of one race. How must this poor man feel? It was so easy for her to search this man and to see nothing wrong with the illegal procedure. Clearly the humanity of this person never mattered.”

Whitman refuses to apologize. “Did I step over a line from being an observer to a participant that I shouldn’t have and didn’t need to in that instance? Yes,’ she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “But unfortunately that is my nature. When they said, ‘do you want to do it,’ I said sure, without thinking, and I should have thought. That’s really the tragedy of having all this happen. Dumb? Yes. OK, fine. But not racist. Not callous, not racism. He was just the person that was a suspect.”

Additional reporting: Amanda Ward