A Tale of Two Cities: “Rational Racism,” Amadou Diallo, and Us

pseudo-academic drivel at time, D’Souza’s analysis is now parroted by juries and

syndicated columnists, who in the wake of the verdicts wrote that the shooting

was understandable, and that any rational person would have done the same, given

the "thugs" found in neighborhoods like Diallo’s. Mona Charen went so

far as to say Diallo basically died for the sins of his black brethren: a claim

so putrid as to merit nothing in the way of intellectual response.


much for the conservative principle of "personal responsibility,"

which conveniently goes out the window if applying it might interfere with the

prerogatives of whiteness: in this case, the prerogative to label a group of

people deviant, and treat individual members of that group on the basis of the

designation. Funny, coming from folks who criticize affirmative action because

it ostensibly treats folks on the basis of group membership. Note: at least

affirmative action never killed anyone. Would that the NYPD could say the same.


for the second, and seemingly unrelated locale, consider this: recent news

reports note that Forsythe County, Georgia-about 30 miles outside Atlanta-is now

the fasting growing community of its size in the United States.


this honor had been bestowed upon any other place, it is unlikely I would have

written about it. But Forsythe County is special to me, because it was the first

place I was required to spill blood-not by choice-in the fight for racial

equity. In 1987, civil rights demonstrators, myself included, marched in the

county to protest the fact that Forsythe whites had kept any blacks from moving

into the area for over a half-century. During our demonstration, many of us were

struck by spit, sticks, and rocks, the latter of which caused a gash in the back

of my head that took several days to heal.


yet, thirteen years later, this county-which still has only a handful of black

residents and remains home to many of the bigots who attacked us and justified

their racism on one of the very first episodes of Oprah-is the hot place to be:

leading one to wonder, just what would draw people to Forsythe, given this



the answer is the same thing that causes white cops in the Bronx to shoot a

black man who reaches for his wallet because they assume he has a gun: namely,

"rational" racism. In Georgia, this means whites who are largely

fleeing the "chocolate city" of Atlanta, to find what they refer to as

"good schools" and "safe neighborhoods," by which they

mean-but are not honest enough to admit-white schools and white neighborhoods.

In the lexicon of American racism, "good" and "safe" have

become synonymous in the white mind with whites, and "bad" and

"dangerous" synonymous with black, and this is a truism in Georgia,

New York, and all places inbetween.


Forsythe to be the fastest growing area of its kind in the country is not-cannot

be seen as-simply a race-neutral human interest story: not with the county’s

background; a background about which most adults moving there from surrounding

cities and suburbs are surely aware. This place is known to be white, not by

accident, but on purpose; and yet, there they come, with their families in tow,

to find that "safe" place to live. No one asks if it’s safe for folks

with dark skin, or whites who speak out against racism. We already know the

answer to that question, but of course, that’s not a safety about which the

residents of Forsythe, new or old, are likely concerned.


would have thought Gwinnett County-bordering Atlanta-was white enough. After

all, this is an area where citizens voted against connecting with Atlanta by

commuter rail, despite the fact that with their vote, they were consigning

themselves to continued long commute times and interminable traffic jams. But at

least they wouldn’t be making it easier for black Atlantans to take advantage of

the two-way nature of public transport, and perhaps hustle it out to the ‘burbs

themselves. Such is the price white folks will pay to live apart from black and

brown people: longer commutes, and the corresponding higher gas and car

maintenance bills, to say nothing of costlier mortgages. Such is the

"rationality" of our racism.


yes, I said "our" racism, because despite what folks tell you, it

isn’t just "other" whites who think this stuff about "good and

safe" places, or who are predisposed to view blacks as violent. So

ingrained is the notion of danger as black and blacks as dangerous, that

immediately following the verdict in the Diallo case, the most common thing

discussed among whites it seemed-and this was true for liberal and left-leaning

whites as well as conservatives-was whether or not the verdict would touch off

rioting in the black community.


think about that; and ask yourself if you, even for a moment, wondered or

worried about this same thing; and then ask what the likely answer says about

the way this racist mentality has affected us. After all, to jump so quickly to

the concern about "rioting" in this case, is to assume that black and

brown folks can’t control their anger; it is to believe they are perpetually on

a powder-keg, just waiting to burn shit to the ground, and all it takes to set ‘em

off is one more thing. But, these same folks live with constant indignities

meted out by the justice system, economic system, housing, financial and

educational institutions of this society, such that "one more thing"

happens every day before lunch. If blacks were so "crazy" they rioted

every time they found themselves on the short end of a jury verdict in this

country, there’d be no property left to burn.


is black and brown riots are rare, and always have been. But whites have

developed our own way of rioting, our own way of lashing out that is nothing if

not frequent: namely, to move far from black and brown people, and empower

"our" police to do whatever it takes to "protect and serve"

us. Instead of destroying black property the way we did back in the day, when

"they" forgot "their place," we just make sure their

property won ‘t be anywhere near ours: and we do this with zoning laws, and

lending discrimination under the guise of "actuarial analysis," and

blockbusting, and de facto redlining. Over half the counties in the nation have

less than 250 blacks, and over 80% of the country’s whites live in communities

with hardly any people of color around them-and it wouldn’t be that way if at

some level we didn’t prefer that it be so.


suburban whites in Minneapolis-fairly liberal by national standards-67% of whom

in a 1993 survey said white suburban kids should be sent to predominantly black

schools in the city, but only seven percent of whom said they’d be willing to

send their own child.


Metairie, Louisiana, where over half of all whites admit they moved to the

area-just outside of New Orleans-to escape black people.


Montgomery County, Maryland, where poor whites, according to the Washington

Post, have sacrificed coveted slots on public housing wait lists, just to avoid

being placed in a mostly black development.


Matteson, Illinois, where an increasing number of black residents prompted a

mass exodus of whites, despite the fact that crime declined, schools improved

and property values grew throughout the transition period.


of whites say they prefer to live in a community with no more than 10% people of

color, and a recent Russell Sage Foundation study found that whites typically

consider even lower-income white communities with lower housing values,

preferable to higher income, more prosperous communities with large percentages

of people of color.


all of it is justified and rationalized on the same grounds: fear of crime, fear

of bad schools, fear-plain and simple. The same fear that the Albany jury

ratified as a legitimate defense for murder by police; the same

"rational" racism that started as mere theory, and has now proven

fatal. And so long as we make excuses for the fear, and act on the basis of it,

and fail to challenge it in ourselves and others, we’ll be just as guilty as

those officers who killed Diallo. And we’ll have little basis upon which to

condemn them, acting as they did on the same impulses which so often animate us



Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer and lecturer. He can be reached at

[email protected]



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