Last June Nicholas Minucci, a young white man, spotted Glenn Moore, an African-American man, walking down a street of Minucci’s neighborhood of Howard Beach, Queens, an area that is generally described as “all white.” Minucci leapt out of his car, accosted Moore and, employing a baseball bat he just happened to be armed with, beat Moore while spewing racial epithets, then stole his sneakers. Moore ended up with contusions on his body and two skull fractures.
Minucci’s trial has just now come before a jury. That Minucci assaulted Moore is not the main issue in the case; rather, the question is whether Minucci’s use of “the N word” makes this a hate crime as well, warranting a much longer sentence. As the New York Daily News headline put it, N-word Tested at Fat Nick Trial. (Yes, as though there weren’t enough fun to go around, Minucci’s nickname really is “Fat Nick.”)
I will leave it to the jury to render its verdict in this matter. What intrigues me for the purposes of this column is what the public discussion of the case tells us about this cultural moment. To be fair, the case overflows with the kind of sordid detail and juicy drama that fairly begs for high tabloidization. The moment it was revealed that Minucci had a prior conviction for shooting a Sikh woman with a paintball gun while shouting “You fucking Indians, you killed our people,” New Yorkers knew to brace themselves for a good ‘un. The moment it was revealed that Moore admitted that he was in the neighborhood to steal cars but had changed his mind and was simply walking around in admiration, awed by the beautiful, well-kept homes–well, one knew this would get interesting.
And so it has. Race and class, cynicism and humiliation, this case has only the finest ingredients. Ethnic Italian versus African-American. Working-class thug versus underclass gangsta. Howard Beach versus the Badlands. Minucci calls black and Latino “pals” to the stand who say he’s not racist. Glenn Moore claims transformation by having had the good fortune to gaze upon the pristine perfection of an ownership society.
On radio and TV, interesting theories of risk allocation have been invoked. Callers to morning chat shows claim that no sane black man would go into Howard Beach, therefore Moore deserved what he got. “If you know, do not go,” said one caller who described himself as black. Presumptions of Moore’s guilt have eclipsed any meaningful discussion of Minucci’s vigilantism. Yes, yes, maybe Minucci could have called the police rather than “whacking” Moore, but Moore shouldn’t have been there! OK, so Minucci’s taking the sneakers was a little excessive, but Moore had no right to be there! Inside the courtroom, Minucci has been immersed in studies of the history of the N-word. He has armed himself with a copy of Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy’s provocatively titled book Nigger and peruses it conspicuously while seated at counsel table, cracking his knuckles intermittently. In that book, Kennedy flatly claims that the word “nigger” has lost its sting, that it is just part of American idiom, that usage by hip-hop musicians and high-fiving basketball players has rendered it little more than the currency of facile badinage. Minucci likes this a-contextual take on the word; indeed, it is the cornerstone of his defense against the hate crime charge. Minucci just loves hip- hop and high-fiving and basketball to death–the bat notwithstanding. As a soulful born-again, neo-kinsman of Ludacris, he claims to have utilized the N-word’s most casual and nonconfrontational connotation when inquiring if Mr. Moore might possibly have lost his way.
This is where it gets particularly interesting, I think. Minucci’s defense seems to rest on a complicated kind of ventriloquism, or shape-shifting. He may have been an epithet-spewing white person beating up a dark-skinned victim with a baseball bat, but, forsooth, it’s not a racial hate crime because he was really performing the assault as a pseudo-black-brotherly person. Minucci’s assertion of this kind of malleable identity is marked not only by his attempt to align himself with what black speakers mean when they employ the N-word; it is also signaled by dress–the oversized basketball jerseys, the enormous sweatpants, the flat-brimmed, sideways-turned baseball cap in which he is most commonly pictured.
Moore, on the other hand, appears dressed for the yacht club. When he testified, he wore an outfit that consisted of a polo shirt, a dark blazer and khaki pants. Even so, the reportage of his appearance revealed complex fissures in how class and race are observed and by whom. The New York Times described Moore with “an earring gleaming in his left ear” and “slightly oversize clothing.” The Daily News, on the other hand, described him as “neatly dressed.”
Whatever is made of Moore’s outfits, there is no such ambiguity when it comes to the characterization of Nicholas “Fat Nick” Minucci’s predilections in haberdashery. He’s into hip-hop. Wears “ghetto” gear. His stuff is blacker than the black guy’s.
So here’s what I wonder: As I follow this case, I peruse the newspapers. In the police blotter, I come across one or two or three cases a day of black teens or black young adults being charged with hate crimes for yelling things like “honky” or “white trash” while shoving, hitting, throwing stones and other clearly harmful and violent behavior. As in the Minucci case, this is important, because the charge of a hate crime can add years to a sentence for assault. Hence, I would like to know if there’s a parallel defense available for black defendants who want to put a “white face” on their behavior. If Nicholas Minucci can claim “no hate intended” because he lives his life in blackface, would it work, do you think, for an industry of expert witnesses to show that hurled terms like “honky devil” and “white trash” are just hillbilly terms of endearment? Would it work, claiming that black defendants are just so immersed in imitating white hockey players or Ann Coulter that nothing more than good mimetic fun should be imputed? And would that “sincerest form of flattery” make us love one another better or hate one another more?