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The New York Sun


For Whom Bell Tolls

December 05, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

The main lesson from the protests in Queens in the wake of Sean Bell's shooting death two weekends ago is not that the usual suspects are claiming racism on thin evidence. They are doing just that, of course. We know so little at present, and indications so far are that it is much less likely that Bell's death was due to racism than these people are hoping. Yes, I mean hoping, which is what makes performances like these especially hard to watch.

However, identity politics is all about jumping into the streets. It's an old story, and in the Bell case, masks an underlying frame of reference that dismays me even more.

Suppose, for example, that racism is what killed Bell. We should remember that one is not insane to at least consider the possibility. One might reason as follows: Black people are overrepresented in dangerous neighborhoods. Thus, officers will have more violent encounters with black men than with white ones. Possibly, then, officers of any color, exhibiting the tendency inherent to our species to generalize, might internalize, even involuntarily, that in tense situations, black men are more of a threat than others.After all, they never run up against white or Korean guys defending crack houses with gunfire.

That is a thoroughly logical and temperate line of reasoning as long as one keeps an open mind that race may not be a factor. However, those who treat it as the only thing about the Bell case worth serious attention are, in their way, fiddling while Rome burns.

Notice, for example, that Bell appears to have been chosen over other young black men killed by the New York Police Department as a useful figurehead for the ritual performance. Apparently, the brute number of shots is what moves people so deeply. After all, since the 41 shots that felled Amadou Diallo, we will recall Ousmane Zongo killed in a weird encounter in a warehouse and Timothy Stansbury killed on a rooftop by an officer.

Yet in the wake of these cases, the Reverend Sharpton was praised for his "restraint" in allowing that they were accidents. It would seem that Bell's case is considered useful because of the memory-friendly nature of the 50 shots, as well as that Bell was to marry the mother of his two children the morning after he was killed.

However, the fact is that he was also a 23-year-old man with two children who did not work steadily. He worked "odd jobs," and he and his fiancée lived with her parents. He had also been arrested four times.

And as for one of the men he was with saying "Get my gun," whatever the story behind that turns out to be, I myself never end up in situations where a gun would even come into the conversation. Nor do I fall into "altercations" in public places. I assume I speak for most people.

Of course, Bell's killing should be investigated thoroughly regardless of what kind of life he led. And it bears mentioning that he was about to marry the mother of his children, which showed that he was trying to rise above business as usual, and for whatever it's worth, he never actually did time.

Yet there is still something dismaying about the fact that amidst all of these protests, Bell's lifestyle—not working steadily although he was a father of two,and regularly running up against the law—is considered perfectly normal.

The assumption, presumably, is that Bell's lifestyle was a result of racism—i.e., that steady work is so hard to get for black men without college diplomas that treading water with "odd jobs," occasional holdups, and/or drug peddling is all we can expect unless people are gifted or lucky.

But it was only 30 years ago that vast numbers of black men started staying out of the workforce regardless of the state of the economy. In, say, segregated Indianapolis of 1960, 93% of black men were steadily employed. Yes, old-time factory jobs left many cities soon afterward—but look at the legions of immigrants as black as Bell who have made do despite that. Or look at the countless young blacks without college degrees working as security guards, cashiers, and so on.

The problem is a change in what is considered normal in black communities, such that the security guards and cashiers are thought of as having chosen to work rather than steady work being thought of as what all normal people do.

That is, culture is now as much our problem as racism.

The usual suspects chanting "50 Bullets" know this on some level. At assorted forums they mouth concern about our young people settling for less. But only racism truly moves them.

To them, programs that actually help black people, like welfare reform or KIPP Academy schools, are uninteresting, because they do not have cleansing white people's psychology on their agenda.

And at Martin Luther King Day events next month, they will present themselves as continuing King's work, under the impression that the most urgent task for someone committed to that legacy is to count bullets.

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