Our American Skin: Cops, Color, Culture, and Crime

Pop & Politics, 2000, by: Farai Chideya
America: Colorblind, or blind to the facts about color?
In today's society, our greatest problem with race may be acknowledging that we still have one. But the more we avoid a subject, the more it bubbles to the surface. Witness the brouhaha over a report revealing that the New York City Police Department engages in racial profiling. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- who seems to have shed his kinder, gentler persona like a Mardi Gras mask -- immediately lashed out at the findings.

"Once again," he said, "the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has embarrassed itself by releasing a report that bears no relation to reality." But an analysis of hard data found that 51 percent of people stopped by police on Staten Island in 1998 were African-American, though only 9 percent of residents in that part of New York City are.

Racial profiling takes place every day in cities across America, but the very nature of the problem means that some of us see it and fear it, while others of us don't. No doubt, profiling helped lead to the death last year of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed Guinean immigrant at whom undercover NYPD officers fired 41 bullets. An unarmed white man on his stoop, even in a lower-income neighborhood, is a man. An unarmed black man on his stoop is a suspect. The Diallo shooting, and acquittal of the four officers this year, sparked protests, inspired an anthology of writing titled "Police Brutality" and moved musicians to write protests songs. In an era when rap has become less political, Mos Def and Talib Kweli of Blackstar put together the all-star album, "Hip Hop for Respect." The compilation pulls no punches, with rhymes like: "Too many of my guys have become moments of silence/ Laws take lives and condone it through sirens and nightsticks." But even though tracks from the album have hit the rap charts, mainstream culture critics have been too busy praising the misogynist Eminem's skillz to give it any play.

Not so for another protest song about the Diallo case, Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin." With Saikou and Kidiadou Diallo seated in the audience, The Boss took over Madison Square Garden and sang a simple song referencing their son's death to his overwhelmingly white fans. "Lena gets her son ready for school/ She says now on these streets Charles /You got to understand the rules /Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite /Never ever run away and promise momma you'll keep your hands in sight /'Cause is it a gun? Is it a knife?/ Is it a wallet? This is your life /It ain't no secret It ain't no secret /The secret my friend /You can get killed just for living in your American skin /41 shots/ 41 shots/ 41 shots."

To say that the NYPD went ballistic would be an understatement. Posting on a Web site, Bob Lucente, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen a "dirt bag" who "has all these good, American flag-waving songs and all that stuff, and now he's a floating fag." Nice. Other officers held an anti-Springsteen rally and asked fans to boycott the show.

The intensely negative reaction among many police to "American Skin," a song that empathetically pictures the officers "kneeling over his body in the vestibule / Praying for his life," shows how little room for dialogue currently exists between officers, who are mainly working- and middle-class whites, and citizens of color. Police abuses in urban neighborhoods are well documented -- not just shootings, but the endless stop-and-frisks that incarcerate a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos, and affects the quality of life of law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, those same law-abiding citizens are hurt the worst when crime begins to rise, as it has in New York City. The only way to craft a just and successful anti-crime policy is with the help of the community, not in its absence and anger. Everyone in an American skin -- cop and civilian; black, brown and white -- could do well to drop the defenses and begin a dialogue about what justice really looks like.