July 4, 2005

Change For The Better: New York Responds To A Hate Crime

Two decades ago, a group of black men sought help in Howard Beach, N.Y. when their car broke down. Some white men responded by chasing the men into the path of an oncoming car; one was killed. The incident touched off heated racial unrest in New York.

Last week, a white man attacked a black man in the same neighborhood, fracturing his skull. Response to the incident is much different, according to the New York Times, with Rev. Al Sharpton praising city officials for their response instead of adding fuel to an already explosive situation.

Why? The city has changed. Then, African-Americans felt ignored or worse by the city's power structure, while "whites had been slowly losing their majority status in the city, and felt threatened as more neighborhoods hit a tipping point as minorities moved in. Crime, bolstered by the crack epidemic, was increasingly adding to the sense of insecurity about a city out of control. And a series of explosive events - crystallized by Bernhard Goetz's shooting of four black teenagers he thought were about to mug him on the subway - heightened festering tensions between the races. ... Sometime in the 1980's, New York became a majority-minority city. Those changes were reverberating politically."

Now, Queens has a black borough president. And where there was once widespread black mistrust of law enforcement, that is slowly changing. This year, a majority of the latest graduates of the Police Academy are from one minority group or another. ... In 2000, a Times poll found that only 3 percent of black voters in New York City said Mr. Giuliani cared about the needs and problems of people like them. In a Times poll completed last week, 51 percent of blacks said Mr. Bloomberg cared.

Crime is down, neighborhoods are being revitalized and the city is a calmer place. It's not a racial nirvana, but people are definitely getting along better. There's not full equality, but people have learned to share power. And when attacks happen, others in the community can work together to deal with the fallout, instead of tearing the social fabric apart.

There's another difference between the Howard Beach cases. The victim of this year's Howard Beach attack allegedly was in the area looking for a car to steal. "I have no problem with the attackers being charged with a hate crime, which will kick the possible penalty up a notch if they're convicted," writes Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy. However, she notes, "From all appearances, this was a case of thug on thug, which is quite different from an encounter between a violent white racist and a black innocent. ... If young men go to a neighborhood with the intention of ripping off the local residents, I'm not going to feel so sorry if one of them happens to get his butt kicked in the process. And I think a lot of New Yorkers feel the same way."

Because ultimately, most people of all ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds yearn to live in safe communities.

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