It was nearing closing time in March last year when a manager at Boffi Georgetown dispatched a series of alarmed messages. Observing two men yelling outside the luxury kitchen and bath showroom, Julia Walter reached for her phone and accessed a private messaging application that hundreds of residents, retailers and police in this overwhelmingly white, wealthy neighborhood use to discuss people they deem suspicious.
“2 black males screaming at each other in alley,” Walter wrote. “. . . Help needed.”
One minute later, a District police officer posted he would check it out, and Walter felt relieved. But as weeks gave way to months and the private group spawned hundreds of messages, Walter’s relief turned to unease. The overwhelming majority of the people the app’s users cited were black. Was the chatroom reducing crime along the high-end retail strip? Was it making people feel safer? Or was it racial profiling?
Richard Cohen - yes, the funny one - explained this all to you years ago.
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.
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.
Being racist is not in itself racism. Just deal with it black people.