Bang-bang. Michael Halberstam is shot dead. And bank-bang, black Washingtonians watching the 11 o'clock news last Friday had a common thought: "Damn, I hope the guy that shot him isn't black."
The reason behind the thinking is simple. If the gunman is black, then all black people will bear the burden of thoughts and words from whites that say, "It's black against white, isn't it, baby?. . . . And we tried to be nice." Liberalsim and racial toleration will fall to a gut-level indictment of all blacks as criminals preying on whites.
I was actually relieved when I picked up the newspaper the next morning and read that the alleged gunman had been tentaively identified as a neighbor of Halberstam's: Halberstam lived in a fancy, mostly white neighborhood. The odds were that the murderer was white. When the police corrected the identification and said the suspect was white and from Virginia, I was doubly happy. Two sterotypes had been evaded. First, that criminals are black and, second, that criminals live in the city.
To whites, this black-white reaction to a horrible incident -- the murder of a man -- may seem paranoid at best, irrelevant at worst. But to blacks, who experience all life in America in some racial context, the response to the shooting was deeply revealing of several racial attitudes.
For example, last year when two black men were shot by handguns a block from my home in the District, the word spread through the neighborhood. But there was no mention of the shooting and the loss of life in the news. In stark contrast, when a white teen-ager, riding in a pickup truck, was shot about four blocks from my home, the story was front-page. What gives?
In the divided Washington we all live in -- divided by race, by class, by local people versus people here for a few years -- there is the assumption that the poor blacks in the city are going to have shootouts every so often and there is no reason to get upset. It is not important news that someone got shot over a drug deal, that a man shot his wife or girlfriend or that a card game ended in murder. The assumption there is that the loss of life is a loss to the victim's mother and no one else.
The opposite holds true when an upper-class, white male -- especially one who is establishment, a federal government, official, a lawyer or doctor -- is shot. If someone like that gets shot, all human concern and grief are unveiled. The loss of that life is viewed as the loss of a life of value. The man may have counseled and dined with other powerful people, helped to shape the world and possibly made decisions that touched other lives directly. The death of a black man, blacks generally not having that high position in the world, is seen as a less important loss to the world.
This racial coloring of a shooting death extends even to people not involved. If a black man shoots a white man, blacks feel that whites hold them responsible as a race. The crime of that one black man is magnified by the attention given the shooting death of a well-to-do white, and by the intensity of that outrage all blacks are put in a position of apologizing for the murderer.
If a white man shoots a black man, especially if the white man is a policeman, there will be racial overtones too. But blacks do not look at all whites as potential gunmen. That is the key difference.
The simple explanation for why blacks as a group must face this tyranny, guilt by race, would be to say that this is a racist country. But there is more to it than that. There is nothing racist about being aware of the fact that there is a high crime rate among poor, badly educated blacks living in cramped city conditions. Blacks as well as whites know that is true.
But some whites use that fact to form an easy sterotype: blacks as criminals. They don't take the time to distinguish one black person from another. Suddenly all blacks, young ones in particular, become suspects to many whites. That is racism by default: neglecting to take the time to see beyond skin color, to see individuals as anything but blacks.
It is that same racism that makes the almost daily shooting of blacks in the city, usually by other blacks, go unnoticed until a big-time white man is shot. Then the black deaths become background to the white's murder. The large number of mostly black murders is used to bolster the horror of the white's murder. I once worked for a newspaper in Philadelphia that had a policy of not saying whether the victim or the suspect in a crime was black or white on the grounds of what difference did it make? The reality was then, and is now, that it makes a difference to readers. When the victim was white, a picture would be used with the story. If the assailant was black, his home would be said to be in the (code word) "inner city." And if a black killed a white, the story was a good bet for page one.
The race of the dead man and of the murderer makes a difference because all interracial relationships, from man to man to white nation to black people, hang by the thinnest, most delicate of threads. And today, after a history of slavery and imposed ignorance, black people are no longer seen as victims. Now they are the aggressors -- the beneficiaries of affirmative action and integrated schools that cost white jobs and neighborhoods. No excuse is made for past sins against blacks by whites that put the country into this situation.
Basically, blacks must be on their best behavior as a race on the threat that whites will punish the whole lot of them.
So when it came to Michael Halberstam's murder, all blacks had a stake in knowing if the gunman were black. They wanted to know if the resentment against them was going to burn even deeper.