I will never forget the horror I felt as an 11-year-old in August 1989, when I heard about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. I knew about the racial tensions in New York and the similarities between those tensions and the racial woes in my hometown of Boston, but the Hawkins murder was uniquely unnerving because of the reports that he was targeted by white youths who mistakenly thought he was the new black boyfriend of an Italian-American teenage girl who lived in Bensonhurst. Just a few years before, I had a crush on an Italian-American classmate in elementary school, and the thought of someone being so angry over it that they would want to kill terrified me.
We always remember the first time we learned about the worst consequences of racism, just as we always remember the first time we learned about the worst consequences of gun violence. The Hawkins murder–the Emmett Till case of the 1980s–was a traumatic experience, to such an extent that 25 years later, when I visited New York for the first time to attend the People’s Climate March, I found myself battling nervousness about my safety. Would I run into some hater with a handgun on my way to or from the march? (Or a cop who thought I matched a certain description?)
I enjoyed my time in New York, and consider that march one of the best experiences of my life. However, there’s a march of a different sort scheduled to take place this Tuesday: a march of hate, in the form of Donald Trump’s expected victory in the New York Republican primary.
There’s a part of me that thinks Thomas Frank’s downplaying of the bigotry that is the true core of the Trump campaign constitutes a form of white privilege. It’s as though he cannot put himself into the shoes of those who recognize that Trump is appealing primarily to those who don’t want people of color living next to them, taking jobs they think they’re entitled to, going to their schools…dating their daughters and their sisters.
Voting for Trump is a way to, in effect, use racial slurs against nonwhites in public. It’s a way to say that diversity is worthless. It’s a way to turn the clock back.
What will happen to race relations in this country if Trump wins the GOP nomination and the general election? What will happen to our common humanity if this bigoted billionaire becomes the next White House resident after two terms of the first black President?
If Trump does win the New York Republican primary, it will send a grotesque message to the rest of the country–and the world, for that matter. It will signal that the Empire State may not have moved that far beyond the days of Yusef Hawkins and the Howard Beach case. It will signal that the Trump campaign is indeed alive and well, energized as ever by mendacity against minorities. It will signal that the dream of a colorblind society is still decades from becoming reality.
What if Yusef Hawkins hadn’t been killed that day? What if he had survived a racist attempt on his life? What would he say today to the New Yorkers who are planning to vote for Donald Trump?
I can think of one thing he might say:
“Shame on you.”