I wish that white people would stop pretending they believe race was no factor in the Bernhard Goetz case: in the shooting, in the jury's verdict or in the public reaction.
And I wish that black people would stop pretending they believe Goetz saw only four young black men who, for all he knew, might have been on their way home from choir practice and soliciting funds for new hymnals.
Ending the pretense would not necessarily produce among us a consensus on the shooting that left four men wounded, one of them paralyzed, but it might make it possible for us to talk about the thing in ways that would at least let us make sense to each other.
It does not make sense to blacks when we hear Goetz' lawyer, or the jury foreman, or any number of white people insist that race was absolutely no factor. We simply cannot imagine a black man being exonerated of shooting down four white youths who had not directly threatened him. Maybe -- just maybe -- if one of the victims in the Howard Beach affair had shot one of his white assailants, he might have been acquitted. If there was evidence that he had been chased or beaten or otherwise put in undeniable fear of his life.
But if he claimed self-defense on the ground that he could sense that the youngsters were up to no good, or that he had previously been beaten by another white gang, the brother would do some time.
It makes no sense to whites when they hear New York ministers and civil rights leaders contend that the character of the victims of the subway shootings was not a factor, that Goetz learned only after the fact that they were thugs.
A Nigerian in Washington can glimpse a countryman across the street and tell you with astonishing accuracy whether he is Hausa, Ibo or Yoruba. He cannot tell you how he knows -- the clues are too subtle to be put into words -- but he will not doubt his identification.
In similar subtle ways, you learn (in the big cities) to distinguish among casually dressed black college students, boisterous black teen-agers and black thugs. Goetz knew his assailants were thugs. And, yes, they were assailants, even though they never raised a hand against him. Only the hopelessly naive would believe that their request for money made them mere panhandlers. They were at least prospective robbers, and maybe a good deal worse than that. If they had beaten him to death, it would have been a one-day story. Goetz was right to be afraid.
But was he right to shoot them? The jury verdict notwithstanding, I answer: No. He could easily have used his illegal weapon to hold them at bay until he managed his escape. Goetz might not have been the "subway vigilante" he has been painted as being; he might not have been looking for an excuse to use the gun he had taken to carrying after an earlier mugging. But, as his subsequent taped "confession" made clear, the multiple shootings were far more than mere self-defense. He was making a statement.
And now a number of well-respected blacks are saying that the jury verdict was also a statement: a message to whites that it is now open season on black hoodlums. One group of New York blacks is even talking of riding the subways in defense of the likes of Goetz' assailants.
The first is, I suspect, overreaction. To begin with, Goetz was convicted of carrying an illegal weapon and stands to serve at least a year for that offense. But even if he is given probation on the weapons count, it doesn't follow that white people, in New York or elsewhere, will now arm themselves against black thugs and start blasting away at the first sign of trouble. There may be widespread relief among whites (and among many blacks as well) and even a degree of pleasure in the fact that Goetz beat the attempted-murder rap. But don't expect wholesale carnage on the streets and subways of New York.
The second strikes me as merely silly. People like Goetz, as sick and trigger-happy as he might have been, are far less a threat to the public safety than people like the youths who saw him as an easy mark.
Too many whites are behaving as though race was no factor at all in the tragic affair. Too many blacks are behaving as though race was the only factor.
They're both wrong.