Amadou Diallo and the Problem of the Color Line

Amadou Diallo and the Problem of the Color Line


41 shots, to subdue an unarmed African immigrant standing in the vestibule of his building doing absolutely nothing wrong. And all of those who pulled the triggers are declared “not guilty” of anything, not even reckless endangerment, by the jury in Albany, N.Y. on Feb. 25!

How could this happen, and what can we do to hasten towards the time when this is an impossible result?

Those who closely followed the trial are highly critical of the Bronx County prosecutor’s office. They presented a very weak case in which the issue of racism was never brought up even once. There is no question but that they bear much of the immediate responsibility for this incredible verdict.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is certainly a chief culprit. It was his politically-driven decision to triple the size of the Street Crimes Unit within the N.Y. Police Department, leading to large numbers of untrained and poorly supervised cops, as well as his extreme and barely-disguised contempt for people of color, which had much to do with the Diallo shooting.

The racially unjust criminal “justice” system, one in which disparities in arrests, conviction rates and length and severity of sentences between whites and people of color, as well as between those with money and those without, are widely recognized serious problems.

But let’s go a little deeper.

Why do we have a racially-biased “justice” system? We have one because we have a racially-biased, and class-biased, political and economic system, all the better to maintain the power and riches of those who have them and to disproportionately penalize those who are poor or with a darker color of skin. After all, as Lee Atwater proved in the early ’80s, “Willie Horton” divide-and-conquer scare tactics, the demonizing of people of color as “the dangerous other,” serves well to keep apart potential allies.

This still isn’t deep enough though. We need to ask: leading progressives and leaders of labor have for decades, going back to the Knights of Labor and the early populists of the post-Civil War period, understood and spoken about the need for unity across racial lines. And yet, as we begin a new century and a new millennium, WEB Dubois’
statement one-hundred years ago, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” still rings true.

Look at most groups on the political Left. How many are genuinely multi-racial, with a good mix of both people of color and whites in leadership? Very few. Most organizations on the Left tend to be predominantly of one culture or another.

How can we change a racially unjust political, economic and criminal “justice” system if we haven’t CHANGED OURSELVES, changed our organizations, to reflect the kind of world we would like to see brought into being. How can we begin to do so?

I think there are three basics for those of us who are of European ancestry if we GENUINELY want to move towards a time when black people do not have to worry about being shot down if they pull their wallet out of their pocket in the vestibule of their home.

First, we need to develop friendships and social relationships with people of color. We need to be able to relate to people from different cultures on more than just a “meeting” basis. We need this in order to break down the guilt, the fear, the insecurity that we can easily feel given the racist history and the generally segregated social realities in the United States.

Second, there is a need for serious study about the history of racism in all its different manifestations; i.e., what happened to the indigenous peoples in the Americas beginning over 500 years ago when Columbus and his crew arrived; the brutal theft of tens of millions of people from Africa, the development of chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation in the South, and institutionalized racism growing out of that set of historic realities; the history of the Asian and Pacific Island peoples in the building of the railroads, the sweatshops, etc.; and the history of the various Latino/Latina communities as they were affected by the arrogant “manifest destiny” of successive U.S. governments. We have to understand that history of racism so that we can understand how it has affected the realities of our society today.

Third, we need to be involved with organizations that are multi-racial–a union, a tenant organization, a church, a political group, whatever. We need that kind of involvement so that we have a reality check. Those of us who do not experience racism on a daily basis need to be constantly reminded, brought up, confronted with or exposed to these realities.

Unless these “basics” are present in the lives of those of us of European ancestry, we are in constant danger of being affected by the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that permeates and pervades the dominant institutions of this society. Good intentions are not enough; concrete steps in the way we live our lives must be taken if we are to fulfill our human, anti-racism responsibilities.

If Amadou Diallo’s death, and the sadness and outrage over the Albany verdict, lead more of us to take these kind of concrete steps, then it will not have been in vain. And we need to keep up the pressure right now for the federal government to indict the four police officers responsible for his death!