Testing for Violence

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On a cool early spring day near the corner of Court and Montague Sts. in downtown Brooklyn, I stopped to read a flier that was taped to a building wall. The flier read: Want to earn a quick $30?

That got my attention?who doesn't want to earn a quick $30? Under the offer of money was a drawing of an owl, and then it said that if you were of a certain age?and you were white?then call this number. Below that there was a drawing of a little white girl meandering through a meadow.

The last time a huge meadow like that existed in Brooklyn that little white girl would have been chased by Canarsie Indians.

I noticed that the flier was a few feet away from a bronze plaque commemorating the Brooklyn Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson to be the first black to play baseball in the major leagues. Robinson's signing took place in the building. I stood off to the side and watched people's reaction to the flier.

Two black women stopped to read it. One sucked her teeth and said, "Yeah, they get everything. It's always all good for them crackers." Her friend nodded. Some blacks in Brooklyn have no fear of making disparaging comments toward whites. It is a fairly accepted practice. Racial insults like "cracker," "whiteboy" and "honky" get bandied about without much fear. Now, if a white person were to use equivalent slang, a problem would definitely ensue. In Brooklyn most blacks have no fear of whites, but a lot of whites have a fear of a blacks.

I watched a few more people stop to read the flier. Some laughed, others shook their heads and one man wrote the number down. I was intrigued. What the hell does a white person have to do in this town for a quick $30?

A few days later I called the number and spoke with Ralph Ostane. Turns out Ostane is a 25-year-old African-American who lives in Brooklyn and is working toward his masters degree in Psychology at Long Island University. He put the flier up for a survey he's doing. I asked him why he only wanted white people to apply.

"Yeah, that threw a lot of people off," he said with a laugh. "I guess people got suspicious with that. I got a lot of calls?well, not calls but hangups. People wanted to check and see what it was about. The reason I put down whites was because I have mostly blacks and Latinos for the survey and I needed Caucasians to participate."

I asked Ostane just what the study was.

"The study is to see how different age groups and race groups process information in the New York City area. I was hoping to see if there is a difference in how various generations perceive violence-related stimuli. The age factor is one aspect, and then race is the other. We're looking to test anywhere from 45 to 90 people. We have 25 so far, but the study got stalled because of 9/11."

Now I really was intrigued. Violence-related stimuli?

"Well, the study is, among other things, a test to see how someone reacts to certain words, some of which are violent in nature."

Now Ostane had me. I volunteered for the test. The next day on my lunch hour I walked down Flatbush Ave. and crossed the street by Junior's restaurant. I passed a construction sign that had Hoodfellaz graffitied on it. I walked through the gates of LIU and entered the H building. Inside there was the normal campus buzz of young people flirting and hanging out in hallways. I found my way to the 8th floor psychology department and sat and waited for Ralph Ostane. He came in a few minutes later and took me into a side room. He set up a laptop and had me fill out a survey form.

"Look, I have to test you for color blindness. If you pass you can take the test. If you don't I can you give you $5 for your time but you can't do the test, because you need to see color."

I passed that part with flying colors. I was ready for Ostane's survey. On four letters of the keyboard were red, blue, yellow and green dots. Words appeared on the screen in one of those four colors, and as fast as I could I had to hit the corresponding key. Some words were benign, some were insults, others signified violent acts?Ostane asked me not to give away the words, in case any New York Press readers want to take the test. At first I did it quickly, but then, as certain words appeared a few times, I felt my gut stirring. Damn, words do have power. I pushed through what I was feeling and finished the test.

Ostane gave me a short break and then had me fill out a survey of my moods over the last two weeks. After that I had to answer some questions about my childhood. Ostane was an excellent tester and kept the whole thing running smoothly. It was over in 30 minutes. He thanked me and handed me $30 on the spot. Before I left, I asked him if he still needed only whites.

"No, we're still looking for as many people as we can get, and that includes white people."

So if you want to make $30 and meet an interesting man, call Ostane at 917-704-3012.

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