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Urban Rhythms


By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/3/2002

I got a letter the other day from a Baltimore City man who took exception to my March 13 column on the city police commander who lost his job over racial profiling. You may remember the case: A 57-year-old woman had been raped at gunpoint near a bus stop on Woodbourne Avenue. She described her assailant as a black male. And so, Maj. Donald Healy, then commander of the Northeastern District, wrote a memo instructing his officers that "every black male around this bus stop is to be stopped until subject is apprehended." The major, a 29-year veteran, resigned after the memo became public.

In my column, I expressed regret that Healy lost his job--good jobs are hard to find, and I am not a believer in the gospel of zero tolerance. But I noted that a good many callers to some of the area's radio talk shows found nothing wrong with Healy's memo. It made sense to them for police to target every black male in the area, since the victim described her assailant as a black male. Several of those callers claimed that they would have had no problem submitting to similar police scrutiny if the assailant had been described as a white male.

Frankly, their rank dishonesty infuriates me. First of all, that would never have happened. If the woman had described her attacker only as a white male, police would have asked her about height and age, about facial hair and clothing. It would never have occurred to police that a crime committed by a white male gives them a license to stop and question all white males. For one thing, they'd never get out of the station house, since most police officers in this city are white males.

Secondly, those callers lied when they claimed they wouldn't mind being stopped by police on such meager grounds. There is no one on this planet more indignant, more outraged, and more afflicted with a profound feeling of violation than a white man who has inadvertently been treated as if he were black.

And so, I said, Healy had to go, if for no other reason than to send a message to the yo-yos who haunt talk radio.

The reader who wrote me raised another argument that has been popular in recent weeks. He claimed that those such as myself who raised such a ruckus against racial profiling care nothing for the rape victim--who happens to have been a black woman. We are blind, he said, to the real issue: black-on-black crime.

"You and many other African-Americans seem to be afflicted with a curious case of partial blindness and deafness," he wrote. "It causes African-Americans to be unable to see, hear, or acknowledge the millions of black crime victims nationwide that black criminals victimize. They cannot see black criminals either. I call it the Black Invisible Crime Syndrome."

I'll ignore the allegation that blacks care nothing for rape victims. I think most of you can see that statement for what it is. Let's talk instead about the notion of black-on-black crime. Once upon a time--probably in the late 1960s, during the dying days of the civil-rights movement--someone thought to capitalize on the ideal of black unity by pointing out to black criminals that most of their victims are black. I suppose they expected street thugs to slap their foreheads à la Homer Simpson and say, "D'oh!"

Unfortunately, the typical street thug violates relationships that are a lot closer than race or ethnicity. Most criminals prey on people they know--loved ones, family members, friends, neighbors. It would have been just as useful to complain about son-on-parents crime, or neighbor-on-neighbor crime. We have come to learn that criminals care nothing about black unity.

But the concept of black-on-black crime took on a life of its own--so much so that even civil-rights leaders complain about it. Those same leaders would blink at the notion of white-on-white crime, although that is the prevailing crime problem in those communities where the majority of residents are white.

"Today," my correspondent writes, "black murderers and rapists are a greater threat than racial-profiling police."

Throw away race. Race is not the issue. Crime is the issue. Criminals--violent predators--are the issue. So what do we do about crime and criminals? Well, I suspect the people in Northeast Baltimore--as well as the victim--would have preferred a police commander who instructed investigating officers to get a detailed description of the suspect. Armed with specifics, officers could narrow their search. They might even stop black men in the area and ask for help identifying the culprit. In the end, they'd have a better chance of catching the rapist, who remains at large.

Maybe the term "racial profiling" is misleading. In the final analysis, Healy was fired because he was a dumb cop. In my view, those who demand effective police work are not blind. In fact, they see things a lot more clearly than those who make excuses for shoddiness and ignorance.

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