Fintan O’Toole: The violence of racism is embedded in American society
In 2016, white America elected a racist president. That privilege comes with a cost
Posters of Patrick Dorismond, seen circa 2000. Dorismond was killed outside a bar in Manhattan.
Twenty years ago, I was living in New York and working as a drama critic for the Daily News. I used to walk most mornings across Manhattan to the paper’s office on the west side of the island, writes Fintan O’Toole.
On March 16th, 2000, I saw some police tape outside the Wakamba, a cocktail lounge on Eighth Avenue, but didn’t think much of it. Only later in the day did I hear that a 26 year-old-man, Patrick Dorismond, had been shot dead there in the early hours of the morning. In that foolish way the mind has of making events that happen on familiar territory seem more important, I paid a lot of attention to this killing.
Patrick had finished work in the club, where he was a security guard. He was standing outside waiting for a cab. A man approached him and asked him to sell him some drugs. (Witness reports varied as to whether he asked for marijuana or crack.)
What was indisputable was that Patrick Dorismond was entirely innocent and that he was dead because of the colour of his skin
Patrick got angry at the assumption that a black man standing on the street must be a drug dealer. He shouted: “What are you doing, asking me for that shit?” There was some pushing and shoving. Another man then stepped forward and shot Patrick once in the chest at very close range.
The man who fired the shot and the man who asked Patrick for drugs were undercover New York Police Department (NYPD) officers. They were trying to entrap him. He was young and black, and they assumed he was a dealer.
Since they were never tried, it is not clear how much the killing owed to deliberation, how much to anger at being challenged, how much to panic. What was indisputable was that Patrick Dorismond was entirely innocent and that he was dead because of the colour of his skin.
In itself, this was hardly a revelation. When I’d first arrived in New York three years earlier, a black man, Abner Louima, had been tortured and raped with a broomstick by a police officer in Brooklyn. The story ran for a long time because one of my colleagues on the Daily News, Mike McAlary, investigated it relentlessly, and the officers involved were tried and jailed.
Just three weeks before the killing of Patrick Dorismond, four NYPD officers had been acquitted of the killing of another young black man, Amadou Diallo, whom they shot 19 times as he stood outside his apartment block in the Bronx. They claimed to have mistaken his wallet, which he presumably took out to show his identification, for a gun.
It was not, then, that I was unaware of the basic fact that police officers killed young, unarmed black men and generally got away with it. But what happened after Patrick Dorismond’s violent death was, to me, staggering.
The mayor of New York at the time was Rudi Giuliani. He was not yet either the heroic figure he became after 9/11 or the half-mad sidekick of Donald Trump he is now. But he was an extremely successful rising politician, a Republican who was dominating a Democratic city.
Giuliani called a press conference. I genuinely thought he was going to say what a tragedy Patrick Dorismond’s death was and how sorry he felt for his mother. It seemed unlikely he would address the racism that was at the heart of the killing, but he would surely at least acknowledge the seriousness of police officers shooting an innocent man on the streets of his city for no good reason.
Instead, Giuliani launched an all-out attack on the victim. When he was 13, Patrick had been in a fight with another kid over a dropped quarter and had been charged (as black kids in minor incidents are) with robbery and assault. Because he was a juvenile, the records of this charge had been sealed by the courts.
I realised that my shock at what Giuliani was doing was a mark of my naivety and ignorance. The term for that naivety and ignorance is white privilege
Patrick had in fact literally been an altar boy. He had gone to the same Catholic school that Giuliani had attended, Bishop Loughlin Memorial High in Brooklyn. If his name had been Patrick O’Dowd or Patrizio D’Angelo, his death would have been a terrible event. Giuliani would have visited his parents and wept with them over their lost son.
But here he was openly and unlawfully smearing the dead man, implying that he got what was coming to him. There was one reason for this and one reason only: racism. And this was fine. Giuliani went on to be “America’s mayor”. Patrick Dorismond was nobody.
I realised that my shock at what Giuliani was doing was a mark of my naivety and ignorance. The term for that naivety and ignorance is white privilege. That summer, we were in the lift in the apartment building we lived in. There was a black lady with her son, who was the same age as my pearly white son. The school holidays had begun, but this boy had his school backpack on. My wife said, “Oh, are you going to school?” The lady had him turn around to show that the bag said United Nations School. “It’s safer,” she said, as if explaining the obvious to slow learners, “if people think he’s a rich black kid than if they think he’s a poor black kid.”
White people look to the cops to protect them from violence; black people fear violence from the cops. And while a white person killed by cops is a tragedy, a black victim deserved it, if not for what was going on at that moment, then for the stain of criminality that cannot be washed out of his skin. Black victims can be doubly annihilated – killed and smeared – with impunity.
There could be no greater expression of white privilege than the freedom to vote for an incendiary racist in the knowledge that he will only be racist about other people
Maybe, if you were black, you might have thought that the advent of the mobile phone and social media would change things. White people seeing real-time footage, again and again, of black men being killed by cops, would finally experience the shock of recognition: this is what racism looks like. But no. In 2016, with image after image of killing after killing in their heads, white people elected a president who had spent decades promoting openly racist causes, most recently the theory that Barack Obama was not really an American.
Trump calls white supremacists “good people”. But even for those who are not on the far right, he offers the comfort of denial: there is no such thing as white privilege. It is all just political correctness. Blacks are to blame for their own oppression – the same message Trump’s sidekick Giuliani was giving 20 years ago.
The irony in this is that there could be no greater expression of white privilege than the freedom to vote for an incendiary racist in the knowledge that he will only be racist about other people, whose skin has more melanin than yours. But that privilege comes at a cost. It can, in the end, be purchased only by violence. That organised, official, structural violence is deeply embedded in the history of the United States. Sometimes it is occluded. Trump, his party and his supporters have let it loose. Americans see, yet again, what it looks like. In the word he urged on state governors this week, it looks like domination.
Fintan O’Toole writes for The Irish Times and The Guardian.
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