Racial Identity Dictates Level of Support
Sharon Stewart, Cornell Review, Apr. 12
On a busy Friday in July 2002, outside of Pete’s Grocery in the city’s West End, three individuals brutally restrain and assault twenty-year-old Patricia Morris. The incident shakes the community to its core. Then, on November 9, 2003, a strikingly similar attack occurs after a concert featuring Nappy Roots and Ludacris. Subsequent to a brief altercation during the performance, six individuals viciously assault a Cornell student.
Morris did nothing to provoke her attackers. While walking along Buffalo Street, she noticed two women staring at her from the back of a pickup truck. When she strained her eyes to discern their identities, they responded with racial slurs and obscene gestures.
Nor did the victim from Cornell incite her assailants. A woman attending the concert simply took issue with the placement of her hair. She demanded — first with racially loaded dialogue, and then with force — that she relocate it. The student and her friends then moved to the back of the concert hall, to avoid further conflict.
When Morris saw the pickup truck pull into a parking lot, she attempted to discover the identities of the insulting parties. The encounter turned violent when one of the women kicked Morris in the head. Physically restrained with a knee to her back, Morris sustained repeated kicks to the head, and experienced frequent blackouts.
At the end of the Ludacris concert, the Cornell student separated from her friends, preparing to go home. But the girl with whom she had argued had other plans, and the support of five of her friends. At the hands of these individuals, the student experienced debilitating slaps, kicks and punches.
Morris suffered a broken nose and facial bruises. Her attackers had ripped the braids from her head. The Cornell student suffered a ruptured ear drum, thirteen stitches on her face, as well as miscellaneous scrapes and bruises. Her attackers also pulled out her hair.
The attacks against these young women — who have an appropriate expectation of safety in their own communities and universities — are both deplorable. Unfortunately, the inequitable reactions of the community are also deplorable.
The attack on Patricia Morris motivated the outraged citizens to hold two community meetings and three public rallies. Attendees railed against hate-based violence, institutional discrimination and “the hypocrisy of diversity rhetoric.” The victim from Cornell received no such meetings or rallies.
In Patricia Morris’ case, many citizens questioned the methods of the Ithaca City Court Judge as well as the police officers who conducted the investigation. They even suggested boycotting Pete’s Grocery when the store security cameras failed to record the beating. Yet when the alleged assailants of the Cornell student were charged with misdemeanors (rather than the felonies faced by Morris’ attackers) public opinion was mute.
In the wake of Morris’ attack, an “emergency meeting” of seventy-five residents produced a list of twenty-eight suggestions on community action. Among these were plans to engage in a broader dialogue about institutional racism in society and human experience. They urged increased vigilance and activism, and the support of Morris at the defendants’ court appearances. The Cornell attack elicited no similar emergency meetings, nevermind offers to support the victim in court.
The community rallies held in support of Morris boasted a large number of community leaders. Mayor Alan Cohen expressed his dismay at the crime: “I’m horrified but not surprised,” he told the community, pledging his support as an individual and city employee. Assemblyman Marty Luster quoted Robert Kennedy’s speech, given upon the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Acting Police Chief Lauren Signer expressed her anger over the attack as a citizen, mother, and woman. “Our anger doesn’t give us the right to hate. But it does give us energy,” she said. If only a single prominent community leader had expressed anger over the attack of the overlooked Cornell student!
Even if the Ithaca community felt no outrage over the group-beating of a young woman, one would think that the University’s response would match the gravity of the situation. Linda Grace-Kobes, director of Cornell News Service, pledged that the crime would be investigated thoroughly. Robert Harris, vice president for diversity and faculty development, encouraged the victim to file a bias-related incident report. Simeon Moss, deputy director of Cornell News Service, reported that the victim had been advised of counseling services at the University. However, even directly after the incident, publicity was virtually non-existant. The University did not send the crime alert e-mails that are customarily sent after significant crimes occur. To this day many students on campus are ignorant of the attack. And the Administration has certainly not been forthcoming with disclosing information and records regarding the incident.
How could the community reaction to two crimes of similar nature and magnitude change so drastically from case to case? Unfortunately, people cannot seem to see past race. Patricia Morris is an African American woman, who experienced an attack at the hands of white individuals. The victim at Cornell is a white woman, who experienced an attack at the hands of African Americans. Perhaps it is time to look long and hard into the collective conscience of a community that responds to the former by shaking its fists with pledges of “never again” — and then looks the other way when the latter occurs barely a year later.