Racial Divide in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn

August 23, 1989. This day may have seemed like any other day in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. You enter Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and observe youths crowded around a candy shop, women donned with tight pants and high heels, a variety of different social clubs, and an overwhelming amount of Italian pride. In this majority Italian community, it is rare to see a person of color walking down the street. Yusef Hawkins’ presence in Bensonhurst was an anomaly to the Bensonhurst racial order at the time. As Hawkins approached a used car in the neighborhood, approximately 30 boys crowded around him and ultimately killed him that day. People of the neighborhood claim that the boys’ actions were solely motivated by their need to protect their community and their cultural pride. Is it inevitable, however, that this cultural pride comes off as racism?

While New York City as whole has been classified as a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, Bensonhurst was the complete opposite. Bensonhurst is one of many cultural enclaves throughout New York City but is seemingly intolerant to other cultures. During the time of Yusef Hawkins’ death, a majority of the population consisted of new Italian immigrants, mainly from Sicily or southern Italy. [1] A Brooklyn College professor names Dr. Gerry Krase claims that the culture of this particular Italian population attempted to recreate their Italian villages from back home and tried to reflect their “exaggerated sense of defense” against any other culture or ethnicity.

Three days after the death of Yusef Hawkins, approximately 300 blacks marched through the streets of Bensonhurst in protest of the racism that the black community was facing from the Italians. The “sense of defense” that Dr. Krase describes ultimately creates a web of stereotypes against minority groups. Due their apparent differences. Many italians in the neighborhood viewed minorities as a dangerous population of people, thus lending to their need to defend themselves. As the blacks marched through Bensonhurst, the Italians shouted many racial slurs and obscenities. Italian residents of Bensonhurst, however, did not believe that their actions and mentality was racist and went to great lengths to prove this. Andrew Sullivan speaks of Father Barozzi, an Italian priest from the neighborhood. Father Barozzi created an initiative in the neighborhood that encouraged the children of Bensonhurst to learn about African American history, ultimately trying to get rid of bigotry in the neighborhood. At the same time, however, Father Barozzi recounts the common stereotypes that they had of African Americans such robbing people, listening to loud music, and having no family values. [2]

This, however, is not the introduction of racism in America. Racism has been part of society since the eighteenth century when society began to categorize themselves by the color of their skin rather than by social class. Over time, racism began to dissipate with the abolishment of slavery and the works of African American activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. In an article written 2 years prior to the murder of Yusef Hawkins, Samuel Freedman of the New York Times claims that although there have been significant improvement, racism has not been eliminated. In a New York Times poll they found that “35 percent think no significant improvement has been made in race relations over the last decade; 29 percent say they are worse, and 27 percent that they have improved.” [3] Based on this poll, a majority of New Yorkers feel that racism has either remained stagnant or gotten worse within a 10 year span, which is reflected in Bensonhurst during the period where a new wave of Italian immigrants entered the city and created their Italian enclave.

Enclaves are dotted throughout New York City and have proven to be supportive of those specific ethnic groups. Many enclaves have allowed for immigrants to enter New York City and find familiarity and comfort. This comfort, however, encourages people of similar ethnicities to to stay together, creating a polarizing effect. This polarizing effect was seen in 1989 when 30 young white men felt threatened by an innocent young black man. Fast forward 11 years, there is still racial polarization amongst the younger generation Bensonhurst residents in 2000. In an article written by an NYU student, a eighteen year old Bensonhurst resident named Sammy G says “That’s why we stay here and they (blacks) stay there. We don’t belong there, and they don’t belong here. That’s the bottom line.” [4] This notion that blacks are meant to stay away from whites at all times is a clear representation of how different cultural enclaves have allowed society to believe that each race should only be confined to their space.

Fast forward again 16 years to Donald Trump’s campaign and presidential victory. For the most part, Bensonhurst was completely overjoyed to hear that Donald Trump has won the election. Bensonhurst was the area in New York City that had the most Republican votes. This may be due to the fact that many of the ideals of Bensonhurst residents aligned that those of Donald Trump, which includes his nasty attitude towards minority groups. Ksenia Novikova attends New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst and exclaimed “It’s scary that he might stand for that [racism] and his views are going to be even more polarizing.” [5] This student is clearly aware that Donald Trump’s ideals would ultimately feed into the racism that was already present in Bensonhurst. According Hannah Frishberg from brklynr.com, many students who had Republican views were very vocal about their opinions and even went as far as to dress as Trump during Halloween to show their support. [6]  It is the minorities in Bensonhurst who do not share this radical point of view and it is the minorities in Bensonhurst who are berated for their differences by their peers. The same principle applies to Bensonhurst in 1989: It was a minority in Bensonhurst who did not have the same skin color as the majority of the population and it was a minority in Bensonhurst who was berated and beaten to death by his peers. Although it could possibly be argued that the 30 Italian boys were trying to defend their community, it is hard to believe that they would kill a strange Italian man to defend the community the same way that they were willing to kill Yusef Hawkins.