No Romeo

A local variation on the Black Girlfriend Defense

If you're going to write a screenplay about a white-on-black hate crime, make sure the perp's love interest is a black female. Why? Because he needs an alibi … of the moral sort. The minute his black girlfriend appears on screen, the plot thickens. Your movie becomes less black-and-white. Or maybe more so. Let me explain.

A few months after I moved to NYC in 1986, 10 baseball-bat-wielding whites attacked three African-Americans who'd had the extreme misfortune to experience car trouble in a stubbornly white, segregated section of Queens known as Howard Beach. One of the black men, Michael Griffith, died while trying to sprint across a highway to safety.

For a time, the case monopolized the airwaves in New York — its details, the rage and consternation it provoked, and most memorably, endless debates about whether the attackers deserved blame. The fact that the white mob's nominal leader, Jon Lester, had a black girlfriend suggested to many that the attack by 10 white guys on three black guys wasn't racially motivated after all. One version had it that the Howard Beach mob was simply defending the neighborhood against an obvious menace (two of the blacks had criminal records and, the argument went, "looked it"). This line of argument conjured up an image of Jon Lester as a kind of modern Romeo minus the blood feud, a tragic victim of a confused, perhaps even hot-headed melee that got inexplicably out of hand.

A quick check of the Internet indicates that black girlfriends have been used as alibis, of a sort, for other white men accused of hate crimes. The website for CAHRO (California Association of Human Relations Organizations) cites testimony from a police chief who complains that a white police officer charged with using excessive force and racial slurs was let off by a civilian review board, who didn't feel he could be "guilty of racism because he had a black girlfriend" — this, despite what the chief describes as an abundance of evidence supporting the charges.

Another police chief, Julian Fantino of Toronto, was himself guilty of a more innovative use of the black girlfriend defense. After a young skinhead killed David Rosenzweig, a Hasidic Jew, the Toronto police department refused to term the incident a hate crime, enraging the Jewish community, among others. In a press conference, Fantino defended the department's actions by noting that the skinhead had a black girlfriend, making it unlikely that he was anti-Semitic. The thought being, apparently, that anti-Semites and black haters are always and everywhere one and the same (Louis Farrakhan, notwithstanding).

The prosecution of the five New York City police officers charged in the Abner Louima case provides, perhaps, the most notable example of the Black Girlfriend Defense. Louima, you may recall, was a young male Haitian immigrant who was brutally assaulted in the bathroom of New York's 70th Precinct station house by two police officers, who screamed racial insults at him, beat him and, eventually, pushed the wooden handle of a plunger into his rectum, perforating his colon and rupturing his bladder. None of the other officers in the precinct house came to Louima's aid, despite his agonized screams. At the arraignment, a defense attorney for Justin Volpe, one of the accused officers, dismissed as "ridiculous" the charges that the crime was racially motivated, pointing to Volpe's longtime black girlfriend as proof he could not be racist.

The Black Girlfriend Defense is simplistic, but superficially logical. Anyone who's ever taken a logic course can almost imagine their professor writing it on the chalkboard as a "syllogism": Y is black. X goes out with Y. Therefore, X obviously likes all blacks.

The problem, though, is clear. The conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. We don't know why X goes out with Y, or what the substance of their relationship is. X could have wildly unresolved feelings about Y's race, which is precisely why he is going out with her in the first place. It's an issue with X. X has issues.

I've been thinking about these cases ever since hearing about Louis Giannola, 19, the Zephyrhills man who is accused of a hate crime for slipping a hangman's noose around the neck of then-14-year-old Dionte Hall at a Largo Wendy's in January.

This alleged hate crime by no means approaches the severity of the notorious incidents I've already described. And the case is still pending: A Largo judge declared a mistrial because of a defense attorney's complaint that the prosecution withheld evidence, and a pretrial hearing was set for Oct. 6.

Still, the one element that connected the Giannola case with the others, and one that's been a constant subject of discussion in news reports and on talk radio, is this: Giannola reportedly dropped the noose around Hall's neck at the behest of a 16-year-old biracial female. She bet him $10 he wouldn't do it.

In one of the first press reports of the incident, the Times noted, "The issue is complicated further because Giannola and the girl who made the bet are both biracial. According to police the girl's mother is white and her father is black. And, Giannola's mother, Dee, said her son's heritage is 'mixed' since she is Puerto Rican, while his father is Italian."

The article didn't say exactly how race complicates the case, but 97X morning DJ Fisher offered one possible interpretation. A few days after the mistrial declaration, he asked listeners to consider the significance of the girl's racial make-up. Considering that she is "half-black," wasn't it at least possible that the act of placing the noose around Dionte's neck was nothing more than a prank? After all, the notion had been vetted — suggested, in fact — by someone who ought to know, right?

Fisher was careful — in his own bellicose, shock jock fashion — to make it clear that he wasn't defending Giannola ("He's a bitch, a little bitch"). It was, it seems, more a question of intellectual clarity. Giannola's black girlfriend was simply too nettlesome for him to lay aside. What were we to make of her? Fisher's sidekick, the Boy, offered one possible explanation: "Perhaps she forgot she was black. Lots of people only remember that when they're filling out a job application or applying to college." Listeners offered other reasons. Giannola was simply a "brat," one man offered, as if that too precluded the possibility that he was a racist.

As one of Fisher's listeners that morning, I was more than a little suspicious of the question. Not least because the issue of hate crimes is a big issue with some people. A lot of white males, in particular, regard the determination as simply another entitlement, a pandering to America's biggest "special interest group." The attempt to reframe the question, to call into question the imputation of a hate crime, is hard to separate from this context. More than anything else, though, it sounds like simply another variation of the Black Girlfriend Defense.

True, Giannola and the girl, have never been described in press reports as an "item." They were simply two racially/ethnically mixed(up) people trading racist banter in the parking lot outside the Wendy's where one of them was about to raise the ghosts of America's hideous past and still-troubled present. I don't pretend to know what motivated either one, and it's not clear yet whether or not Giannola made racist comments as he left the restaurant.

I do know this: the alleged "backing" of a black girlfriend is no proof that racism wasn't a factor. After all, guys with black girlfriends have a long history of doing pretty terrible things to blacks.

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