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Racism still lurks, waiting to attack

Published Oct. 13, 2005

White Americans are impatient with the idea of special concern for the problems of blacks. So the polls tell us, and so the political climate indicates. The raw racial prejudice that once disfigured this country has been overcome, we are told. Blacks do not need extra help, and anyway, providing it causes resentment. It is time they made it on their own.

I thought of those current truisms as I read the story of Jermaine Ewell. He is black, a 17-year-old who just finished his junior year at Lawrence High School on New York's Long Island.

From all accounts he and his family are models of effort and achievement. Ewell has been a football and track star at Lawrence High. Only about 10 percent of the students are black; Ewell had white and black friends.

Lisa Sharek, a classmate, said: "He's so quiet. He's so great. He never did anything to anybody."

On Saturday night, June 1, Ewell went to a graduation party in Atlantic Beach, a shore community not far from Lawrence. He was talking with a friend, a young white woman, when four slightly older white men came up. One of them said to the woman: "Are you with that n-----?"

Others intervened. The tension seemed to ease. The four strangers went away. After a while the party broke up, and Ewell went out to the Atlantic Beach boardwalk.

He was sitting on a bench, looking at the ocean, so he did not see the four men approach him from behind. They had bats. One hit him on the right side of the head. As he lay senseless on the ground, the others smashed at him.

Two other men who had been at the party, Stephen Lieberman and Tony Franzese, saw what was happening and intervened. They fought the attackers, who eventually left. They may have saved Ewell's life.

What kind of life it will be is a question. The next morning doctors operated on Ewell to remove blood clots from his brain. For days he was in critical condition. It remains to be seen whether he has permanent brain damage.

The police arrested four men and charged them with a racially motivated assault.

The one who called Ewell "n-----," they said, was a Lawrence High graduate from Atlantic Beach, Shannon Siegel.

Siegel's neighbors in Atlantic Beach denied that he was a racist. In fact, students at Lawrence High said he had hung around with blacks in school.

Maybe all that is true. Maybe Siegel was drunk when he went up to that white young woman and insulted Ewell.

If the police are right that he went on to make the murderous attack on Ewell, maybe he was drunk then, too.

But if it is true, it makes no difference to the reality of this terrible story: the racist reality. Even someone who had black friends had inside him a hatred that could burst out in murderous form.

Ewell's mother, Ernestine Ewell, said: "His life is over, unless you have an in with God and know how to wake him up. . . . His life is gone because of the color of his skin."

No one can measure how much racial hatred continues to exist in the United States. But prejudice? Assumptions of inferiority? Not many white Americans can look inside themselves with honesty and say there are no such feelings.

That is what black Americans have to live with, all the time, all their lives: the awareness of disregard, of prejudice, perhaps of hate.

And that is why America cannot rightly call its conscience clear, its job of reconciliation ended.

Our political leaders especially have an obligation to do what they can to lead the country away from racism. Which is why I think there can be no worse political sin than making an issue of Willie Horton or trying to take divisive partisan advantage from a civil rights bill.

President Bush is not uninformed on these matters, not ignorant. He has been a personal contributor to black causes for years. His contribution now should be leadership.

President Kennedy did not at first press civil rights issues. But when ugly attacks took place in Alabama in 1963 he responded with a speech to the nation that made a difference.

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . ." Kennedy said. "I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience."

New York Times News Service