Late on the Friday before Christmas four black men were riding through the borough of Queens in New York City when their 1976 Buick broke down—a trivial hard-luck story that would have passed unnoticed had it ended there. Quickly, though, trouble ensued, and New York became the backdrop for a shocking incident described later by Mayor Edward I. Koch as a “racial lynching.” News of the affair occupied the front pages throughout the holidays and renewed a debate as old as America. Do we really care about equality? Is ours a racist country?
Officials said that shortly after the Buick conked out, three of the black men—Michael Griffith, 23, his stepfather, Cedric Sandiford, 36, and Timothy Grimes, 19—started walking while the fourth remained with the car. As the three men hiked through the deserted streets, police said, they encountered an auto carrying several white youths. The whites shouted insults and words were exchanged. But, for the moment, the matter ended there.
It was after 12:30 a.m. Saturday when Griffith, Sandiford and Grimes reached a pizzeria in the largely white neighborhood of Howard Beach. They inquired about the nearest subway station, investigators said, and then ordered food. When they had eaten and rested, the men headed back outside, only to face a number of young whites who had been recruited, police said, by the fellows who had traded taunts with the blacks earlier.
“Niggers, you don’t belong here,” Sandiford recalls one of the whites saying. The black men fled but were caught and beaten, according to police. Grimes managed to elude his tormentors after taking a blow on the back. Less fortunate, the other two men were pummelled with fists, feet, a baseball bat and a tree limb.
The victims ran, but the gang, not yet satisfied, chased after. Near a road known as the Belt Parkway, the whites trapped Griffith and Sandiford. Again the blacks were thrashed, but at last they escaped. “Michael saw a hole in the fence and he was trying to get through while they were beating us,” Sandiford said. “He got through and I followed.”
As though scripted, the incident moved into its final, disastrous phase. Having squeezed through the fence,
Griffith, a Brooklyn construction worker originally from Trinidad, ran in one direction and Sandiford started in another. Sandiford eventually was picked up by police, but for Griffith, no help arrived. Some distance from the site of the second attack he tried to cross the Belt.
It is one of the defining characteristics of New York City that even in the early morning hours traffic can be considerable on major roadways. Dashing into a six-lane thoroughfare, albeit at 1 a.m., is risky business. But Griffith likely thought he had to get as far away from Howard Beach as he could and in the shortest possible time. On his way to the other side of the road, the laborer was hit by a blue 1979 Dodge, pitched against the windshield and slammed into a divider. The young man was found dead at the scene, a victim of brute emotion and bad luck.
One of the suspects recently dated a black girl. “He’s not racist,” the girl said. “Just easily persuaded by people. ”
Authorities have charged three white teenagers in connection with the attack and questioned others. Predictably, persons who know the white youths say they are incredulous that youngsters who seemed so ordinary have been linked to an enterprise so ugly. One of the suspects, in fact, recently dated a black girl, who said the fellow treated her with respect. “He’s not racist,” the girl said. “He’s just easily persuaded by people.”
Howard Beach, too, is being examined. Although residents protest that theirs is not a prejudiced community, authorities say the neighborhood has a history of antagonism toward blacks. Minority workers say they have been harassed on the way to their jobs and, not surprisingly, there are reports of housing discrimination. Only one per cent of the section’s 18,000 residents are non-white or Hispanic.
But aside from the particular players and what may be the special qualities of Howard Beach, the question remains as to whether America itself shares complicity in the attack. There is a general sense that racial intoler-
ance is on the rise. In New York alone there have been two other fatal assaults on blacks by white mobs in the past four years, and of course there was the famous Bernhard Goetz subway shooting case. Black students at several U.S. colleges have lately complained of harsh treatment. Perhaps most important, the administration in Washington is not, to say the least, viewed by concerned parties as being committed to minority advancement.
In the 1960s and 1970s America went through an extraordinary period of introspection regarding matters of race. Old assumptions—primitive and embarrassing ideas regarding everything from personal hygiene to intelligence—were challenged. We became proper and polite. We learned to say “black” instead of “colored.” Some Americans marched for equal justice, gave financial aid to black colleges and supported the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Most recently, we have designated Bill Cosby as a national father figure and adopted his television family.
Yet when this elevated consciousness is given a practical test, we white Americans do not look very good. Housing remains segregated in most communities. Quality employment, education, health care—vital components of a modern industrial society—too often are denied black citizens. What else can be assumed than that whites talk a great game but have no intention of following through?
Americans haven’t much patience for arguments based on the notion of communal guilt. But an incident such as the one in Howard Beach should make us assess our motives and question our leadership. Do we think an attack like that occurs in isolation, that it has no bearing on the country’s mood and disposition?
It may be true that we have altered the external nature of race relations in this country, but we have not adequately changed ourselves. Americans must not be fooled into thinking that we have buried our past. To a large extent the old myths persist, the old racial attitudes endure, and, sadly, Bill Cosby’s ratings don’t prove otherwise. Had Cosby departed unrecognized from the Howard Beach pizzeria with Griffith, Sandiford and Grimes early that Saturday morning, he would have had to run for his life too.
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