The reactions to the Howard Beach verdicts provide a fair -- and unsettling -- sense of the state of racial animosity in this country.
Whites, in New York and elsewhere, are convinced that had the case involved a white man chased to his death by a gang of black thugs, it not only would have been "no big deal" but almost certainly would not have resulted in a manslaughter conviction.
Blacks in these same provinces are convinced that had the racial identifications been reversed, the convictions would have been for murder, not mere manslaughter, and the sentences would have been much longer than anything the three white youths are likely to serve.
They cannot both be right, and it seems likely that both are wrong.
Accounts of the jury's 100-hour deliberations reveal an incredibly painstaking search for justice. The jurors -- one black, six whites, two Hispanics, two Asian-Americans and a Guyanese -- concluded that while the white gang had not coldbloodedly murdered Michael Griffith, they had indirectly caused his death by chasing him into the path of a car.
Their verdict: manslaughter for the three identified assailants, not guilty for one youth who chickened out and went home before the fatal result.
I think the verdict was appropriate, but I also think something else. Postulate the same set of circumstance and the same verdicts, but reverse the color of the participants, and you'd have pretty much the reverse reactions: blacks certain that the manslaughter convictions were handed out because the victim was white and his assailants black, and whites convinced that, had the victim been black and the assailants white, the verdict would have been murder.
Which side is right? It almost doesn't matter. What matters is that both whites and blacks, despite the highly touted racial progress of the last decade or two, still think race colors our perceptions of justice. And on that, they are right.
White people tend to think that blacks have somehow achieved more than justice, that whites are being punished by a too-liberal society for ancient sins for which contemporary whites bear no responsibility.
Black people tend to think that blacks, in any contest with whites, cannot hope for justice; that in the crunch, the system will always favor whites.
And while Howard Beach "proves" each side's contention, the cold facts of that case have little to do with their conclusions.
Take the question of affirmative action. Mention the phrase, and whites are likely to conjure up images of incompetent blacks being handed jobs that, by rights, should go to capable whites. To them, affirmative action means giving jobs to unqualified blacks.
Blacks, on the other hand, tend to view affirmative action as a paltry effort at reducing the amount of antiblack unfairness in the system. From their viewpoint, affirmative action is nothing more than an occasional aberration from the overriding American tendency of white people to favor whites.
Blacks will look at a particular affirmative action order -- say the order requiring the integration of the Alabama Highway Patrol -- and see only a grudging, cosmetic, court-mandated stab at fairness. True fairness, they believe, would have blacks and whites on the force in rough proportion to their numbers in the Alabama population.
Whites, on the other hand, are likely to see the order as a type of "social engineering." For them, true fairness would place troopers on the basis of their test scores or some other "objective" criterion.
The one will dismiss the tests as a white-instituted device to screen blacks out -- much like the discredited literacy tests for voters. The other will see efforts to loosen the grip of the tests as a transparent scam for installing blacks who are too dumb to make it on their own.
The first will not admit that the blacks who apply for the jobs may in fact be unqualified for them. The second will not allow for the possibility that the tests may be screening out blacks who ought to be troopers.
And the animosities are exacerbated.
In the case of Alabama troopers, the result can be a simmering mutual hatred. In the Howard Beach case, the sense of injustice can result in overt thuggishness. On Christmas Eve, a white taxi driver was punched and kicked by black youths who shouted, "This is for Howard Beach." A day later, a gang of white men chased and beat two blacks in Brooklyn, in apparent retaliation for Howard Beach.
The Howard Beach jury may have done its level best on the facts it had at its disposal. But the sad truth is that there is nothing that jury could have done to reach the deeper problem: the radically different assumptions blacks and whites make about racial justice in America.