In order to be admitted to certain Washington jewelry stores, customers have to ring a bell. The ring-back that opens the door is almost perfunctory. According to the owner of one store, only one type of person does not get admitted: Young black males. The owner says they are the ones who stick him up.
Nearby is a men's clothing shop -- upscale, but not really expensive. When young black males enter this store, the sales help are instructed to leave their customers and, in the manner of defensive backs in football, "collapse" on the blacks. Politely, but firmly, they are sort of shooed out of the store. The owner's explanation for this? Young blacks are his shoplifters.
Are these examples of racism? The shopkeepers either think so or think they can be accused of it. They are loath to talk about their policies and quick to assert their liberalism, but business, as they say, is business. Most of their customers apparently concur. Usually they say nothing when they see blacks turned away, and one white congressman, witnessing some blacks being rebuffed, said that if he owned the store, he would do the same even though he considers himself a liberal. He obviously thought there was a contradiction between his ideology and his self-interest.
Interestingly, though, a black colleague of mine thinks otherwise. He, too, would turn away young blacks if he owned a jewelry store, although he said he would make his judgments on more than race, sex and youth. He would also take into account such factors as dress and even walk. In spirit, he was echoing the remark of a Washington cab driver after three hackers had been shot in as many weeks: "Black men, 18 to 25, who live in Southeast are going to have an even more difficult time catching a cab until the culprit is caught." For the record, though, another black colleague called the policies "racist" -- a label she applied to black store owners who follow similar practices.
As for me, I'm with the store owners, although I was not at first. It took Bernhard Goetz, of all people, to expose my sloppy thinking. Goetz, you will recall, shot four black youths on a New York subway after they had approached him and asked for money. After much delay, a jury will make what may amount to a decision as to whether Goetz acted reasonably or whether his actions were racially motivated. At first I thought they were. And now I think they were and they weren't.
It was reasonable for Goetz to assume that he was about to be mugged. The youths asked for money, which, in New York and elsewhere, is just a boilerplate precede to a mugging. It was then that Goetz reportedly pulled his gun and shot them all -- one allegedly in the back as the youth lay on the subway floor. You would have a hard time making the case that the last alleged squeeze of the trigger was "reasonable."
But how about the rest of his actions? There were some who yelled at the time that Goetz was motivated by racism -- that he would not have pulled either the gun or its trigger if his putative assailants had been white. Maybe. But then white assailants are rather hard to find in urban America. Especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head. In the Goetz case, it matters not at all that the four men he shot had extensive arrest records. Goetz had no way of knowing that. As far as he was concerned, the four youths wore their records on their faces.
The Goetz case has its own complications (was he justified in shooting any of the four?), but the factors present are the same the Washington storekeepers take into account when they decide how to treat a customer. Like Goetz, they are reacting out of fear to a combination of race, youth and sex. Goetz pulled a gun; the merchants won't open the door. In both cases, the reasoning is more or less the same: Young black males commit an inordinate amount of urban crime.
For too long now, liberals have reacted to race as predictably as the racists they so abhor. Like racists, they too sometimes see nothing but race, ignoring all other factors. As long as race is involved, it dominates. For instance, it was not just race that bothered some school-busing opponents; it was social class as well. As for our Washington storekeepers, race is only one factor in their admissions policy. Age and sex count, too. And while race is clearly the most compelling factor, ask yourself what their policies would be if young white males were responsible for most urban crime.
Of course, all policies based on generalities have their injustices. A storekeeper might not know that the youths he has refused to admit are theology students -- rich ones at that. But then insurance companies had no way of knowing I was not a typical teen- age driver. I paid through the nose anyway.
A nation with our history is entitled to be sensitive to race and racism -- and we are all wary of behavior that would bring a charge of racism. But the mere recognition of race as a factor -- especially if those of the same race recognize the same factor -- is not in itself racism. This may apply as much to some opponents of busing or public housing in their own neighborhood as it does to who gets admitted to jewelry stores. Let he who would open the door throw the first stone.