In the past few weeks, America has witnessed some of the worst cases of police brutality, judicial injustice and racial hate to surface in years. At Williams, however, these tragedies were hardly an issue. This apparent indifference symbolizes one of the major problems concerning racism both on this campus and in America: that most people simply do not think it exists.
Two weeks ago, a black man in New York City was murdered by four police officers. The details of the incident are obscure, but police officials speculate that Amadou Diallo, innocent and unarmed, flinched in some way as to provoke an onslaught of 41 bullets. The response from Mayor Giuliani and the Police Department was abysmal. Rather than publicly chastise the officers, officials stressed that it was a freak occurrence, and one of the unfortunate costs of heightened safety and police security. Indeed, riddling an innocent man with 41 bullets is a “freak occurrence,” but what was not stressed was that Amadou Diallo would still be alive were he not black.
The racism inherent in this shooting is in no sense an isolated example. Seventeen years ago, Mumia Abu-Jamal, co-founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, was put on death row for allegedly murdering a Philadelphia police officer. “Allegedly” is the key term here, as the evidence against Abu-Jamal is dubious at best. Abu-Jamal was convicted largely because of his “confession.” No mention was made during the trial of how police had only “remembered” this “confession” two months after the murder took place. Also not introduced in court evidence was the December 9, 1982 police report that plainly stated: “the negro male made no comment.” Much of the remaining “evidence” against Abu-Jamal, including disreputable “eye-witnesses,” is similarly conclusive.
Regardless, Abu-Jamal remains on death row despite nationwide protest (including the upcoming Millions for Mumia March in April). Abu-Jamal’s supporters have already saved his life once, when they filed an appeal that postponed the execution originally scheduled for August of 1995.
Time, however, is running out. Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania has promised to resign his death warrant this year; probably to prove himself “tough” on crime; the facts, of course, being irrelevant.
If we wanted to explore further examples of racism in America, we could also discuss the recent murder of James Byrd in Texas, dragged to his death by white supremacists. But the main objective here is not to provide proof of racism but to ask why the awareness of it is so low on this campus.
The incidents recounted above reflect a broad, institutional racism embedded within basic structures of American society. But where was the outrage on campus? Where was the emotion that flared on college campuses in response to injustice in years past?
If we took a poll on campus today, most students would respond that while racism exists, it manifests itself in isolated, external ways. In this sense, I think the Diallo murder again serves as a useful example. Most Williams students would condemn the brutal murder of the young Diallo; this is uncontroversial.
The locus of real debate, however, involves asking ourselves why four white men reacted with such fear and such violence to the mere flinch of a black man’s arm. This ingrained fear represents a racism that is rarely comprehended or discussed at Williams. For how many people, while condemning the murder, can equally condemn the fear? How many people believe that they would not have felt the sweat on their brow, if they were suddenly confronted by a poor black man in a poor inner-city neighborhood?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves if we wish to get to the heart of racial tension at Williams and in America. This is no easy task, especially for most white people, who have little incentive to seriously propose such questions to themselves. Whites do not suffer daily from police brutality, and whites do not disproportionately occupy our prisons and our inner cities.
Despite this obstacle, the inert state of campus race relations is not a hopeless situation. Most students at Williams are highly motivated, and we need to channel this energy towards an issue that visibly divides our country and our school systems. A weekly newsletter on current events or, as suggested in last week’s Record, a campus forum on race, are ideas that could affect real change. Without such change, however, race relations will remain stagnant and cold at Williams. Without such change, we can never truly confront the problem that has plagued America since long before our parents were even born.