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Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Racism in New York in the 1980s

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In the summer of 1985, I attended a game at Yankee Stadium in which Tom Seaver, the former Mets star who was then pitching for the White Sox, beat the Yankees for his 300th career win. But what stood out for me that afternoon was not so much Seaver's impeccable pitching (nearing the end of his career, Tom Terrific hurled a complete game, yielding only five hits and one run, if memory serves) as an incident that transpired in the left-field upper deck where I was seated with several dorm-mates from NYU, where I was living that summer.

A few Yankee fans seated behind us, white men with their shirts off, yelled over the crowd down to a few African-American men, who were seated in front of us. The African-American men were wearing Mets caps and rooting for Seaver.

A banter began when the ringleader of the white thugs, a wiry man with a dark mustache, yelled, "Go back to where you came from" in his inimitable Bronx accent. The ringleader of the African-American men smiled as he delivered a riposte. This went on for some time, but it all seemed to be, if not good-natured, then somewhat jocular repartee.

After Seaver's victory, as I and my NYU colleagues departed the stands and walked down the portal toward the concourse, I heard a slap, but it wasn't a slapping of the face, it was a slapping of sweat-stained bodies. When we entered the concourse, not far from the rest rooms, we could see that the ringleader of the white thugs had started a fight and was bouncing off the torso of the ringleader of the African-Americans, a man who had a heavy upper body and did not appear to be in particularly good shape.

The fight was broken up by the other African-American men, who looked shocked that they, who had done nothing wrong, who had been rooting indeed for a white player, had been sabotaged by some racist punk and his cohorts.

But why should any of us have been shocked? That was the summer that Edmund Perry, a young African-American male, was killed by a white, off-duty police officer in a scuffle in Manhattan. The following year, a gang of white teens in Howard Beach, a predominantly white enclave in Queens, savagely beat one African-American man, Cedric Sandiford, and chased another, Michael Griffith, to his death on the Belt Parkway, simply because they had wandered into the wrong neighborhood.

I have written before about the spate of hate crimes that pervaded New York City in the 1980s. Not all of the cases were as clear cut as Howard Beach or Bensonhurst, another case where a black teen, Yusuf Hawkins, was killed when he too wandered into a predominantly white enclave, this time in Brooklyn.

There was the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a young African-American girl claimed to have been raped by a gang of white men when in fact there was no medical evidence of rape and she had concocted a similar story not long before in order to avoid being punished for staying out late by her mother's violent beau.

I have never forgotten that period of time and hoped that it had faded, that our nation had changed. And yet now we have Trayvon Martin, killed not by an off-duty police officer or a gang of white teens, but by George Zimmerman, a law-enforcement wannabe, who was told by the police to stop stalking Martin.

As I wrote in 2009, the racism that we now see in this country is more "insidious" than it was in the 1980s when it was much more out in the open. But that does not mean that it is any less pervasive.

The killing of Trayvon Martin, like the standing ovation that Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley received at a patrolmen's convention after arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, suggests that some people, a minority to be sure, want to strike back at African-Americans precisely because we now have our first African-American president, Barack Obama. It reminds me of what marketers refer to as post-purchase dissonance, akin to buyer's remorse, in which individuals can become disenchanted with their purchase or in this case their vote for a black man.

It is not that we have more racism now in this country than we did in the 1980s or earlier. One need only think of all the interracial couples now, a relative rarity back then. Instead, what we have is a disenchanted segment of the public that wants to put black people "back in their place," but that will not speak openly about it, except with others whom they perceive to share their views.

I cannot imagine that moron from the Bronx repeating a "go back to where you came from" taunt at any public place in this era. But people like that moron still exist.

They may even be packing heat in towns in Florida and all across the country and wishing that we had never voted into office our very capable commander-in-chief who happens to be African-American.