Black-on-white crime debated after shootings

After last week's slayings, Wilkinsburg, Pa., sets tone of racial reconciliation as some decry antiwhite hate crimes.

When Ronald Taylor allegedly grabbed a revolver and a knife last week, set his apartment on fire, and then shot five people in a Pittsburgh suburb, he shattered several myths about hate crime.

For starters, Mr. Taylor, who has a history of mental problems, is black - and his victims, three of whom died, are white.

His actions have fueled what may be the beginnings of a debate on black-on-white violence. Some right-wing activists say such cases are more prevalent than has been acknowledged. And, while FBI numbers suggest that the vast majority of hate crimes are committed by whites, the lack of reliable statistics clouds this highly charged issue.

Yet, even amid national questioning, the Pittsburgh suburb where the shootings occurred has set an example of reconciliation. Far from splitting the racially diverse community, the crime appears to be bringing Wilkinsburg, Pa., closer together.

"What isn't coming out nationally is that this small town - black and white - is handling this thing better than the rest of America," says Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, Wilkinsburg has spent the past five years pulling together and overcoming gangland violence that disrupted it in the early 1990s.

On Sunday, local white and black church leaders will lead a prayer march from the apartment building where the violence began to the local Burger King and McDonald's restaurants where it continued.

"The community is going to ... reclaim each of the locations," says Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young. "We want folks to know it's safe for them to go back there."

The march is one of several activities that are helping to bridge the racial divide in the community, almost evenly split between black and white.

"Over the past five years, there have been a lot of positives" in the community, says Steve Hellner-Burris, project manager at a community center that has brought blacks and whites together. "Those of us on the inside know each other and trust each other."

Tricky statistics

Outside of Wilkinsburg, however, last week's incident is stirring debate over the tricky issue of classifying hate crime.

For one thing, hate crimes flow from all sectors of society. In 1998, the latest figures compiled by the FBI, whites committed three-fourths of the more than 5,300 hate crimes (where the offender's race was known). Blacks accounted for 18 percent. Far fewer were committed by other racial groups.

"Hate's an equal-opportunity employer," says Joe Roy, director of the intelligence project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit public-interest law firm in Montgomery, Ala., that monitors black as well as white hate groups.

But hate-crime numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down. For example, the FBI statistics cover only about 80 percent of the US population. And, because local jurisdictions do the actual reporting, definitions can vary widely. For example, Arizona in 1998 reported 322 hate crimes, but slightly more populous Mississippi reported only three, and Iowa none. Few hate crimes - 13 in 1998 - involve murder.

Most observers agree that minorities suffer more hate crimes than they report.

At least one right-wing group, the New Century Foundation, argues that whites do too. In a report last year, the Oakton, Va., foundation (which also espouses the idea that race determines IQ) cited 1994 federal statistics that blacks commit far more violent crimes against whites than the other way around - and the group further suggested that these crimes are often racially motivated.

If the numbers are unreliable, should they be reported at all?

Many crime experts think they should. "The classification issue is a very tricky one," says Alfred Blumstein, professor of operations research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But "it's useful in the sense that it's calling attention to the desirability of focusing on those sorts of crimes and trying to find remedies to the factors that contribute to the hate."

Several factors, such as joblessness and alienation, feed racism among some whites.

Other factors - such as police brutality, high levels of incarceration, lack of opportunity, AIDS, and cutbacks in welfare and affirmative action - fuel prejudice among some blacks, says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black author and political analyst in Los Angeles. "The sense now is that there are so many enemies out there that the only one to trust is ourselves. Some African-Americans are saying: 'Hey, they've been killing us all along, so what's the big deal? Why should we cry for white people?' "

Black leaders too silent?

In an opinion column printed this week in this newspaper, Mr. Hutchinson took black leaders to task for not taking a strong stand against the shooting spree in Wilkinsburg. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition issued a strong condemnation. "We must all move forward by our hopes and dreams and not backward by our pain and memories," he said. "Hate crimes are a plague to the very fabric of our nation, and none of us are safe until all of us are safe." But few other national leaders spoke up.

In Wilkinsburg, however, local officials of the NAACP and the Urban League attended a memorial service for one of the victims, a retired priest, who was the only Wilkinsburg resident killed in the spree. At the service, the man's family (who is white) emphasized the killer's mental illness, not his race. "What was wonderful was that those ladies were so dignified and so warm and understanding, because they were saying this [lack of prejudice] is the way their father would have wanted it," says Ms. Bush of the Urban League. "Of course they were upset. [But] they did not have venom coming out of them."

Indeed, within hours of the shooting, local white and black churches called together a prayer vigil attended by some 100 people. The following night, at a meeting broadcast locally, community leaders emphasized racial harmony and reconciliation.

"This is a community that's been priding itself on diversity - racial, ethnic, and economic," says Mayor Young.

Ironically, the Pittsburgh area is embroiled in four separate cases in which white policemen shot and killed blacks in questionable circumstances. Bush has been critical of local police, but she has publicly praised the Wilkinsburg police for their restraint in the Taylor case.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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