A Wall That the Howard Beach Death Reveals

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, December 23, 1986

In this city over the weekend, a white mob beat a black man and then chased him to his death on a highway. It was one of those dark reminders of the barriers of fear and distrust that remain standing between the races.

The things that keep black and white apart are not peculiar to New York City; they are nationwide. But the weekend killing of Michael Griffith, 23, construction worker, can serve as an object lesson of all the unofficial but very real segregation in the country.

The car Griffith was riding in with three other black men had overheated and broken down shortly before midnight on Friday on a remote stretch of Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens.

In their search for a phone to get help, three of them wound up on foot in an insular, all-white neighborhood named Howard Beach.

They stopped in a pizza parlor, where they found no phone but decided to eat. When they emerged onto the street, cars suddenly pulled up and the three black men were set upon by a gang of white youths shouting racial epithets and swinging baseball bats and tree limbs.

“Niggers, you don’t belong here,” they screamed as they bludgeoned. “Niggers, what are you doing in this neighborhood?”

The three ran for their lives. Two escaped with only injuries. Michael Griffith ran onto a parkway into the path of an oncoming car.

Now the people of Howard Beach are saying that the violent cowards who pursued Michael Griffith to his death are not representative of their community. Maybe not, but did the community’s racial walls help to breed this mob?

Four years ago, when a similar mob beat to death William Turks, a transit repairman, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn where he had stopped for a bagel, the neighbors said the same thing. They were good people, not thugs, they insisted. But one thing they did not deny was that blacks were not welcome in their neighborhood.

The Gravesend people sought to explain the situation by saying that the cycle of violence had been started by blacks who had come into the  neighborhood and committed crimes. That’s what some Howard Beach people are saying now — that blacks have carried out burglaries and robberies in their community.

But William Turks and Michael Griffith never robbed anyone. They just made the mistake of stopping for a bite to eat in these neighborhoods.

Some whites in these enclaves say that if they entered black neighborhoods, they would be met with equal violence. Since we have not seen any black neighborhood mobs setting upon visiting whites in this city’s recent memory, there’s no evidence for this claim.

But whites do read about — and some have experienced — muggings by black criminals, and their emotions are then sometimes infused with a measure of racial animosity. This bias may make them feel uncomfortable, but they often seek solace for this unease by citing the statistics that show the bulk of violent crime in this city to be committed by blacks and Hispanics — which of course overlooks the companion statistics that the victims of these criminals are overwhelmingly people of their own race.

In the end, as some people search for rationalizations for their unpleasant feelings, we are all faced with the evidence of the walls we have built — or have allowed to be built. For all the structural progress of the civil rights movement, we of different races can see every day how little we know about each other

We cling to our comfortable circles. We stay where it feels safe, with others just like us. Change is traumatic, and crossing cultural lines constitutes major change. Take a look at our holiday parties this Christmas season. How many blacks will there be in white homes and vice versa?

In my own experiences, I have come personally to believe that there is more reaching out from the black side than the white, more generosity and willingness to forgive from those on the lower half of society’s power ladder than from the dominant group. But I realize that we are all creatures of the particular events we live through and that my truth, shaped as it is by my own events, is but one of many truths in the mosaic.

In Howard Beach where Michael Griffith was killed, a priest on Sunday asked his parishioners to look at themselves and do better. “Racial prejudice is a sin,” the Rev. Kenneth Leona told them. “Violence and hatred are sins. And all the beautiful Christmas lights of our neighborhood cannot hide that type of darkness. The reality of sin and evil has shown forth in our own neighborhood. But there is more to our neighborhood than that, and we must show that ‘more.’”

In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Michael Griffith’s mother, Jean, a nurse’s aide, said, “It still doesn’t sit in my mind what whites did to my son, and I don’t feel that whites are all the same.”

And Michael’s brother, Chris, said: “The truth will come out. No racist remarks are coming out of our family, which is great. We weren’t brought up like that.”

It’s certainly something to think about over the presents and eggnog.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes