Two Boroughs, Two Races, One Problem

Americans are spending a lot of time these days reading, thinking and talking about the Clinton crisis. Some have even called the threat that our president may be impeached a good thing: suddenly we're discussing politics and politicians, sex and sexual mores. Indeed, everybody's talking, and not just about the NFL or the weather. Vocal cords are vibrating coast to coast in serious, purposeful discussions in which people match wits, historical knowledge, personality theories, hunches, political philosophies and, above all, opinions about important public matters.

What we need now is a leader to harness this national dialogue into something still more productive, to keep us talking once Bill Clinton and his parade of scandal marches out of Washington for good. At some point "Lewinsky" will disappear from the news, but our real problems will remain.

One real problem--race relations--has reared its swelling head twice already this month in New York City. First, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to prevent, or at least minimize, a Million Youth March in Harlem organized by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a former aide to Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan and a proven hate-monger.

At Kean College in New Jersey in 1993, for example, Muhammad had said: "Who is it sucking our blood in the Black community? A white imposter Arab and a white imposter Jew."

In Birmingham in 1995, Muhammad said: "You got something going special here. Not too many of them [Jews] here. They're in the woodwork, moving behind the scenes, controlling behind the scenes." Elsewhere he called Jews "hooked-nose, bagel-eating, lox-eating, perpetrating-a-fraud" people who had "just crawled out of the ghettoes of Europe."


Because of Muhammad's hatred and propensity to incite, Giuliani tried to move the march from the center of Harlem to a more remote location. But the mayor was rebuked by a federal appeals court, which allowed the march to proceed on a smaller scale citing rights to free speech and due process.

The march took place as scheduled Sept. 5, though just a few thousand youths showed up. Giuliani virtually shut down Harlem, closing subway stations and dispatching scores of officers to protect the peace. When Muhammad took the stage near the end of the event, his rhetoric was characteristic.

"Stop asking me about the Jews being the bloodsuckers of the black nation.... They are the bloodsuckers of the black community," he told the crowd. Then, when he threatened the mayor and police, advising the audience to fight any officers who began confrontation, police charged the stage and shut down the rally. In the following days, black leaders accused the mayor of turning Harlem into a police state and of treating black New Yorkers like second-class citizens.

It is debatable whether such a virulent speaker ought to have been allowed to gather thousands of impressionable youths in the middle of the city, especially given the lean on public resources entailed. Once the event was given the go-ahead, Giuliani ought to have worked more closely with the community to insure a safe rally with as little additional racial antagonism as possible; Muhammad himself supplied enough of that.

Regardless, the Harlem rally both highlighted and increased the racial tensions in New York. But the worst was yet to come. Two days later, on Labor Day, a group of volunteer firefighters entered a float in the annual parade through the quiet, isolated Queens neighborhood of Broad Channel. The group had won the award for funniest float nine years in a row, with themes that often mocked minorities including Jews and gays, with titles like "Hasidic Park" (a parody of Jurassic Park) and "Gooks of Hazzard."

Somehow word of those offensive floats failed to make the mainstream. This year, the firefighters decided at the last minute to call their float, a decorated pickup truck, "Black to the Future, Broad Channel, 2098." It was intended, they said, to make the point that nearly all-white Broad Channel will, in the next hundred years, become integrated. To make that "point," such as it is, they wore Afro wigs and blackface, dribbled basketballs and threw pieces of watermelon at the crowd.

Most heinous, in the course of the parade one man jumped behind the truck, clung to the bumper and was slowly dragged down the street--a cruel reference to the dragging death of James Byrd earlier this year in Jasper, Texas, by three white men.

A week later, after Giuliani had inveighed against the float and suspended or fired the firefighters involved, the New York Times went back to Broad Channel to assess the community's reaction. "Those guys on the float, I know they play with the colored people," said one Broad Channel resident. "It was all in fun. I wish every kid in the Channel could grow up like that bunch."

"This was a bunch of black guys who were supposed to be drunk coming back from a basketball game," said another 43-year-old man. "Where was that racist?" Obviously President Clinton's now-forgotten national dialogue on race hasn't yet been taken up in Broad Channel.

Perhaps these two events-an invidious anti-Semite drawing thousands in Manhattan and a shameful display of ignorance and prejudice in Queens-can remind us that while we obsess over the mess in Washington, the proponents of hate around us aren't wasting any time. Geoffrey C. Upton '99 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column will appear bi-weekly.