Race Relations during the Reagan Years

Ronald Reagan’s America presented African Americans with a series of contradictions. Black Americans achieved significant advances in politics, culture, and socioeconomic status. Indeed, income for the top fifth of African American households increased faster than that of white households for most of the decade. Middle-class African Americans found new doors open to them in the 1980s, but the poor and working-class faced continued challenges. During Reagan’s last year in office the African American poverty rate stood at 31.6 percent, as opposed to 10.1 percent for whites. Black unemployment remained double that of whites throughout the decade. By 1990, the median income for Black families was $21,423, 42 percent below the median income for white households. The Reagan administration failed to address such disparities and, in many ways, intensified them. Certain federal policies disproportionately affected racial minorities. Spending cuts enacted by Reagan and congressional Republicans shrank Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch programs, and job training programs that provided crucial support to African American households.

The Bernie Goetz Affair

Two events that occurred in NYC in the Eighties Illustrate the racial tone of the times. Conservative vigilantes stressed their own victimization and cultivated a siege mentality. They dressed racist arguments in seemingly colorblind pleas for armed self-defense. Many white Americans began to see liberals as the enemy. These voters were tired of rising crime rates, liberal courts that they believed let criminals off the hook and back onto the street, and a government that seemed indifferent to their own struggles in life. Nowhere was this clearer than in the 1984 case of Bernhard Goetz. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/06/15/bernhard-goetz-roots-kyle-rittenhouses-celebrity-right/)

Bernhard Goetz became something of a folk-hero in New York City for shooting and seriously wounding a group of young black men who allegedly tried to rob him in the subway in December 1984. On Dec. 22, 1984, the 37-year-old White electronics engineer shot and severely injured four Black teenagers — Barry Allen, James Ramseur, Darrell Cabey and Troy Canty — on the New York City subway after one of them asked him for five dollars. Goetz was dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” by the New York press, and was both praised and vilified in the media and in public opinion. The incident resulted in a criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit for damages against Goetz.  Goetz was eventually charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and several firearms offenses. He claimed self-defense.

According to his testimony at trial, Goetz entered the subway car took a seat on the long bench across from the door. Four youths of color were already on the subway car. Goetz testified that the four men gave signals to each other, and shortly thereafter Canty and Allen rose from their seats and moved over to the left of Goetz, blocking him off from the other passengers in the car. By Goetz’s account, Canty then said, “Give me five dollars”. Canty and Ramseur testified at the criminal trial that they were panhandling, and had only requested the money, not demanded it.

“Speed is everything”, Goetz said in a videotaped statement. He told police that while still seated, he planned a “pattern of fire” from left to right. He then stood drew his revolver and fired four shots, one at each man, then fired a fifth shot. At the civil trial years later he said, “I was trying to get as many of them as I could.” Asked what his intentions were when he drew his revolver, Goetz replied, “My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.” Later in the tape, Goetz said, “If I had more bullets, I would have shot ’em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets”. He added, “I was gonna, I was gonna gouge one of the guy’s [Canty’s] eyes out with my keys afterwards”. During his subsequent statement to the police Goetz expressed a belief that none of the young men had been armed. Probably most damaging to Goetz’s claim of acting in self-defense was his statement that he had said “You don’t look so bad, here’s another” before firing at Cabey a second time, severing his spinal cord.

A mainly white Manhattan jury, six of whom had been victims of street crime, found Goetz not guilty of all charges except an illegal firearms possession count, for which he served two-thirds of a one-year sentence. The case sparked a nationwide debate on vigilantism, the perceptions of race and crime in major cities, and the legal limits of self-defense.

Goetz came to symbolize New Yorkers’ frustrations with the high crime rates of the early 1980s. It was a time of peaking crime rates in New York City that had begun in 1966. Between 1966 and 1981, violent crime rates in NYC had more than tripled from 325 violent crimes per 100,000 to approximately 1100 crimes per 100,000 people. By mid-decade, the city had a reported crime rate over 70% higher than the rest of the U.S. In 1984, there were 2 homicides, 18 violent crimes, and 65 property thefts reported per 10,000 people. The subway became a symbol of the city’s inability to control crime. In an opinion poll of New York City residents taken the month after the shootings, more than half of those surveyed said crime was the worst thing about living in the city; about a quarter said they or a family member had been a victim of crime in the last year; and two-thirds said they would be willing to pay for private security for their building or block. (jewage.org/wiki/en/Article: Bernhard_Goetz_-Biography#Historical_context ) It was in this context that Goetz became a hero of the right.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization, supported Goetz’ defense. Its director, Roy Innis, offered to raise defense money, saying Goetz was “the avenger for all of us”, and calling for a volunteer force of armed civilians to patrol the streets. A special hotline set up by police to seek information was swamped by calls supporting the shooter and calling him a hero. Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson explained the broad sentiment by saying, “It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York, because they’ve all been mugged”.

Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, a former speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon who later became Reagan’s communications director, called the public support for Goetz “a sign of moral health.” By contrast, Les Payne, the Black editor of Newsday, pointed out that Goetz had “struck a blow for white manhood.”

Songs relating to the Goetz incident include “The Executioner (Bernie Goetz Got A Gun)” by Pallas, “Subway Vigilante” by Ronny and the Urban Watchdogs, and “Shoot His Load” by Agnostic Front.

“Subway Vigilante” by Ronny and the Urban Watchdogs.  Its lyrics went, in part:

He’s the subway vigilante The brave subway vigilante

Where law and order can’t He showed us how to take a stand

He had enough and came out fightin’

Drove the rats back into hidin’

Let’s cheer the subway vigilante

He’s one kind of special man

The Executioner (Bernie Goetz Got A Gun) Pallas – Lyrics  https://youtu.be/wz3fUH00YSU

Cold night, New York,
Air hangs like death,
Last train to Brooklyn
Pulls in out of breath
King of the blade Holds court in the aisle,
His young face beams danger–Menace with a smile
But if he touches me,
I’ll blow away his confidence–He’ll wish he’s let me be…

I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
He’ll pay the price,
But justice won’t come easily
I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
I have the right to clear the garbage from the street

Eyes meet in combat–He knows the score,
He wants me to take him But I want much more!
I want to see him bleed,
I’ll strike a blow for innocence–He’ll wish he’d let me be

I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
(Who’s fool enough to pay the price!)
He’ll pay the price,
I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner

I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
(Who’s fool enough to pay the price!)
He’ll pay the price,
I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
(Since when is running scared a vice?)
I have the right to clear this garbage from the street

If someone touches me,
They’ll suffer for their ignorance
They’ll wish they’d let me be
I’m Judge and Jury–Executioner
Who’ll pay the price
(Who’s fool enough to pay the price?)
Who’s fool enough to challenge me,
I’m Judge and Jury–Execuitioner
(Who’ll make it safe to walk at night?)
Take my advice, Stay well away from men like me.

“Shoot His Load” by Agnostic Front,  https://youtu.be/whqW1Frobc4

Minding his own business Riding subway trains Got ripped off twice Ain’t gonna happen again

Withdrew a hundred dollars Bought himself a piece Can’t depend on anyone He’s his own police Fourteenth Street station This could be the night December, he’s heavily sweating Collar feels too tight

Tired of being preyed upon By the scum of the earth Tonite he’ll be the predator Someone’s gonna get hurt

Walked into an empty car Found himself a seat Five low lives waiting there Waiting for fresh meat

One by one surrounded him Trapped him by the door Finger on the trigger Got more than they asked for

A split second without thinking Hot gun in his hand Four shots of blood Bernie gets his man

Now he stands on trial A criminal he’s told But he got the satisfaction Of shooting his load

The Central Park Five

The second New York City event that illustrated the racial zeitgeist involved the Central Park Five. Trisha Meili was “The Central Park Jogger”, a woman whose mutilated body was discovered in New York City’s Central Park early in the morning on April 20, 1989. She had been bludgeoned with a rock, tied up, raped and left for dead. She was so badly beaten and repeatedly raped that she remained in a coma for nearly two weeks and retained no memory of the attack. The attack was so severe, she lost 75 percent of her blood, suffering a severe skull fracture among other injuries. New York City Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.”

Meili described her condition in her 2003 book, I am the Central Park Jogger: “The woman is bleeding from five deep cuts across her forehead and scalp; patients who lose this much blood are generally dead. …Her skull has been fractured, and her eye will later have to be put back in its place. … There is extreme swelling of the brain caused by the blows to the head. The probable result is intellectual, physical, and emotional incapacity, if not death. Permanent brain damage seems inevitable.”

The brutal assault of the 28-year-old white investment banker, who had been out for a jog the night before, led to widespread public outcry and the quick arrest and subsequent conviction of five black and Latino teens—Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, Raymond Santana, 14, and Korey Wise, 16—who came to be known as the Central Park Five. Despite inconsistencies in their stories, no eye witnesses and no DNA evidence linking them to the crime, the five were convicted in two trials in 1990. McCray, Salaam and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery and riot. Richardson was found guilty of attempted murder, rape, assault and robbery. Korey was found guilty of sexual abuse, assault and riot. They spent between six and 13 years behind bars.

The attack ignited a media firestorm, highlighting racial tensions in the city and playing into preconceived notions about African-American youth. The crime was splashed across front pages for months, with the teens depicted as symbols of violence and called “bloodthirsty,” “animals,” “savages” and “human mutations”. Newspaper columnists joined in. The New York Post’s Pete Hamill wrote that the teens hailed “from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance…a land with no fathers…to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”

“It was a media tsunami,” former New York Daily News police bureau chief David Krajicek told the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism and research organization.  “It was so competitive. The city desk absolutely demanded that we come up with details that other reporters didn’t have.” Adding fuel to the fire, weeks after the attack, in May 1989, real estate developer (and future U.S. president) Donald Trump took out full-page ads in The New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and New York Newsday with the headline, “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

In 2002 a convicted serial rapist and murderer already serving time, confessed to the Meili attack. Matias Reyes was a positive DNA match to evidence found at the crime scene. On December 19, 2002, a New York Supreme Court justice vacated the convictions of the five previously accused men.

In 2003, the Central Park Five filed a civil lawsuit against New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. City officials fought the case for more than a decade, before finally settling for $41 million dollars. According to The New York Times, the payout equaled about $1 million for each year of imprisonment, with four men serving about seven years and Wise serving about 13.

Central Park Five, The Opera, composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music. https://youtu.be/I8aEFbLLixY (trailer), soundtrack https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2380247/soundtrack/

  • Yo Slippin

Written by KRS-One

Published by Universal Music – Z Tunes LLC

Performed by Boogie Down Productions

Courtesy of RCA Records

By arrangement with Sony Music Licensing

  • My Melody

Written by Eric B. (as Eric Barrier) and William Griffin

Published by Universal – Songs of Polygram Int;l, Inc.

o/b/o itself and Robert Hill Music

Performed by Eric B. & Rakim

Courtesy of Geffen Records

Under license from Universal Music Enterprises

  • On the Run

Written by Nathaniel Hall and Michael Small

o/b/o Piccadilly Music Corp. (BMI) and We Blows Up Music (BMI) and Phase One Network, Inc. o/b/o Tank Music

Performed by Jungle Brothers

Courtesy of Phase One Network, Inc.

  • Jack the Ripper

Written by James Smith and Rick Rubin

Published by LL Cool J Music (ASCAP), American Def Tunes Inc/ (ASCAP) and Def Jam Music,

and Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)

Performed by LL Cool J

Courtesy of The Island Def Jam Music Group,

under license from Universal Music Enterprises

  • Paid in Full – Coldcut Remix

Written by Eric B. (as Eric Barrier), William Griffin and Benjamin Nagari

  • Bonus Beats

Written by Dr. Dre (as Andre Young)

Published by Ruthless Attack Muzick (ASCAP)

Performed by NWA (as N.W.A.)

Courtesy of Priority Records

Under license from EMI Film & Television Music

  • Total Kaos

Written by Parrish Smith and Erick Sermon

Published by Songs Music Publishing, LLC

o.b.o Songs of SMP (ASCAP)

Performed by EPMD

Courtesy of Priority Records

Under license from EMI Film & Television Music

  • Crosseyed and Painless

Written by David Byrne, Chris Frantz (as Christopher Frantz), Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and Brian Eno

Published by WB Music Corp. o.b.o itself and Index Music, Inc. and Universal Music – Careers o/b/o Universal Music Publ. MGB Ltd.

Performed by Talking Heads

Courtesy Warner Bros. Records Inc.

By arrangement with Warner Music Group Film & TV Licensing

  • Next Level

Written by Andre Barnes, Showbiz (as Rodney Lemay) and Wes Montgomery (as John L. ‘Wes’ Montgomery)

Published by Taggle Music Co., and Universal PolyGram Int’l Publishing, Inc. o/b/o London Music UK and Soul Clap Music

Performed by Showbiz & A.G.

Courtesy of The Island Def Jam Music Group,

under license from Universal Music Enterprises

Contains a sample of “Angel” by Wes Montgomery (as John L. ‘Wes’ Montgomrey)

  • Beat the Drum

Written and Performed by Michael Silverman and Robert Silverman

TuneCare Publishing (ASCAP)

Courtesy of TuneCare, Inc.

  • Last Man Standing

Written by Parrish Smith, Erick Sermon, Barry White, Willie Seastrunk), Prodigy (as Albert Johnson) and Havoc (as Kejuan Waliek Muchita)

  • Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela)

Written by Common, D’Angelo, J. Diillo, James Poyser and Questlove (as ?uestlove)

Published by Universal Music Corp. o/b/o itself, and Jajapo Music (ASCAP)/Universal – PolyGram Int’l Publishing, Inc. o.b.o.itself, Ah Choo Music Publishing and E.PH.C.Y. Publishing (ASCAP)/Songs of Universal, Inc.o/b/o Senseless Music (BMI)/Universal Music – Careers o/b/o itself & Grand Negez Music (BMI)

Performed by Common

featuring Vinia Mojico, Roy Hargrove and Femi Kuti

Courtesy of Geffen Records

Under license from Universal Music Enterprises

  • I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free

Music by Billy Taylor

Lyrics by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas

Published by Duane Music Inc.

Performed by Doug Wamble