A New Round of White Denial

In a time of multiple

school and workplace shootings, middle-aged mass murderers, drug-saturated rave

parties, and moms who drown their kids in tubs, lakes, or dump them in garbage

cans, one question comes to mind. How long will suburban white America get away

with expressing shock at the criminal proclivities of its progeny, without media

exposing their presumption of incorruptibility as fallacious and patently

racist? Especially when government statistics indicate deviance and dysfunction

are quite commonplace with such folks and in such places.

On Sunday, August 12,

the front page of the Washington Post brought us yet another story about white

suburban youth, who, to the amazement of their parents, friends, and the media,

turn out to be stone cold criminals. This time the headlines emanate from "nice

neighborhoods," in Northern Virginia: places where sinister crimes aren’t

supposed to happen.

But, as authorities

have discovered, one of the most significant drug operations in the region’s

history was being run from this "nice, safe" place. And not by dark-skinned

street-hustlers preying on vulnerable teens and getting them hooked; but rather,

by the former soccer-playing little leaguers who this nation grooms to run major

corporations, hold political office, or merely typifies as normal, all-American


In this particular

drama, one of the principal players, named (I kid you

not) Owen Merton Barber

IV, stands accused of murdering Daniel Petrole Jr., one of his drug-dealing

colleagues at the behest of yet another fellow-dealer, Justin Michael Wolfe.

Seem implausible?

Surreal even? Thanks to well-worn stereotypes about drug users, dealers, and

criminals in general, we’ve come to expect the bad guys to look like them. Black

and brown people, not those who are white like us. When we have to protect

ourselves from folks with names like Owen Merton Barber the Fourth, well, what

is the world coming to?

Actually, although

underreported, drug data has long confirmed that the stereotypes of users and

dealers (poor, black or Latino, and

urban-dwelling) are not

only racist, but also wrong.

According to the

National Institutes on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control, and the

Department of Health and Human Services, whites are equally or more likely to

use drugs than their African American counterparts, despite common

misperceptions to the contrary.

Although blacks and

Hispanics tend to try drugs for the first time at a slightly younger age than

whites, by the end of high school, whites have caught up and surpassed them in

every drug category. White seniors are a third more likely to have smoked pot in

the past year, seven times more likely to have used cocaine, three times more

likely to have used heroin, and nine times more likely to have used LSD. And

it’s not just that there are more white users, as this would reflect mere

population percentages, but rather, that the white rate of use is that much

higher than the rate for blacks.

It’s the same story for

young adults. Whites are 66% of 18-25 year olds, but 70% of drug users that age.

Blacks are 13.5% of persons in that age cohort, but only 13% of young adult

users, while Hispanics are nearly 15% of that age group, but only 12% of drug

users 18-25.

When it comes to drug

dealing, the picture changes only slightly. According to the Justice Department,

drug users tend to buy from same-race dealers. So the nearly three-quarters of

users who are white, mainly rely on white dope peddlers, not the Jamaicans or

Dominicans of popular imagery. And when it comes to drugs like Ecstasy–a hot

product for the Virginia cartel–the dealers and users have long been known to

be mostly white, middle class males between 14 and 32.

But one would know none

of these things from reading the Post story on the recently uncovered suburban

drug empire, or drug related articles in any other nationally-prominent paper.

Instead, white suburban dealers and users are presented as exceptions to an

otherwise law-abiding rule.

In the instant case,

the accused, from the Prince William County hamlets of Chantilly and Centreville

are youths who reporter Josh White describes as "good kids," who "went bad."

When was the last time a black or Latino drug dealer or gang-banger was

described this way? To those who study media, implicit in most news coverage

when they do it is the suggestion that it’s because they were congenital

criminals; it was their IQ or pathological underclass families. They don’t "go"

bad, they just are bad.

But when stories are

written about pale-faced killers or dealers, or in this case both, sympathetic

adjectives fill the pages. Crime becomes human interest–a cautionary tale. We

are encouraged to identify with the instigators of the mayhem in ways we never

would be were they dark or poor.

For example, Kip Kinkel,

1998′s poster boy for school shootings, was likened in the major media to MAD

Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman: freckle-faced, and the "boy next door." Similar

descriptions were offered for the school shooters in Arkansas, Georgia,

Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Even Columbine shooters Dylan

Klebold and Eric Harris, described by classmates as "dark and brooding," were

still referred to by many as "basically normal," and gave off no warning signs

in the eyes of Littleton families, teachers, or law enforcement. Andrea Yates,

the Houston suburban mom who killed her five kids in their bathtub was described

by one major newsmagazine as having "loved her children too much," and having

been "overwhelmed" by the responsibilities of keeping hearth and home together.

And listen to those

quoted in White’s story. First there is Prince William Detective Greg Pass who

explains, "None of this happened in bad neighborhoods…It bothers everyone

involved that in many ways these kids are mirror images of the detectives

working the case, except they have chosen to go the wrong way." Sympathy,

recognition, identification, and all of it, by the officer’s admission, due to

the fact that these kids are "mirror images" of the detectives themselves. And

what does one see in the mirror after all? One’s face: one’s white, middle class

suburban face, to be precise.

Throughout the Post

piece the ringleaders of this marijuana and ecstasy empire are described as kids

who "went to church," "sold Christmas trees at the mall parking lot," were

"polite, shy, friendly, non-threatening," "clean cut," "cautiously pensive,"

"kind and gentle," "fun-loving," "the class clown." The kind of boys who "you’d

want your daughter to date," and who have been known to nurse sick birds back to

health, "romp down the soccer field," and whose hooliganism was limited to

writing their names in wet cement.

The alleged shooter,

"relished fishing with his father along the Virginia coast, where the two would

exchange high fives when reeling in a catch." Barber’s father–that’s Owen

Merton the third for those keeping count–insists the family was solid and led a

"normal life." Forced to contemplate what went wrong with his fishing buddy, he

speculates that perhaps watching his mother die of cancer convinced his son

"life wasn’t important anymore." Again, sympathy conjured up for the wayward

white youth, in ways that would be highly unlikely for an inner-city kid: even

one who had watched his mom die of cancer, as many have, or perhaps had friends

who had been killed or jailed.

The young man accused

of ordering the hit on Petrole is described as a "role model for his brother and

sister," a "religious Catholic," who is intensely "spiritual." For his part,

Justin Wolfe is presented as a helpful son, who assisted his single mom in

caring for his younger siblings. When was the last time the child of a black,

inner-city single mom was applauded for helping out around the house?

And throughout the

story we learn that the parents of these budding gangsters never suspected

anything, even as their early-20′s offspring jet-setted to Hawaii or Atlantic

City, and bought $200,000 townhouses with their own money. As an additional sign

of the times and the stupendous denial that afflicts so many white upper-middle

class families, Petrole’s father actually believed that his son was able to buy

his own home because he had been lucky dabbling in the stock market. After all,

said Petrole Sr., his boy always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As indeed he was.

So should we now expect national condemnation of the culture of affluence and

the capitalist emphasis on moneymaking as being implicated in these crimes?

Don’t count on it. That kind of analysis we reserve for the "underclass" values

of ghetto-dwellers.

As evidence of how

strong the stereotypes are, consider that at the height of his criminal

activity, Justin Wolfe dated the daughter of the head of the DC regional office

of the Drug Enforcement Administration, without being suspected of anything. The

agent, having no doubt memorized the darker profile of a drug dealer used by law

enforcement, naturally had no clue. Wolfe, according to DEA agent Frank Chellino

seemed "well-mannered" and "stable."

Perhaps white folks in

the ‘burbs need to stop listening to the voices of officialdom or the media, and

start listening to the only folks who seem to know the score: the dealers

themselves. As one associate of the accused explained: "American society doesn’t

want to face the fact that white kids deal and use drugs. They simply can’t look

in my face and see that a nice-looking white kid is selling drugs to their kids,

because that would mean that their kids could do this too. The fact is, we do

sell drugs to their kids, in their rich neighborhoods and in their rich


Just as the media

generally "deracializes" incidents of white deviance, portraying them as the

aberrant, inexplicable acts of aberrant, inexplicable individuals, (unlike the

same from the dark and poor which are often portrayed as group tendencies), so

too did Josh White in his piece on Wolfe, Barber and Petrole. Instead of

pointing out the fallacies of white suburban denial and the blindness that

besets so many of the residents in these "nice," places, White and the Post

offered up a quixotic melodrama: good kids gone wrong; sympathetic, misguided

youths posing as hardened criminals and coming to a tragic end.

Powerful to be sure,

but far too narrow a truth, lacking as it did the contextual information

necessary to understand the common phenomenon of white substance abuse.

Unfortunately, facts unspoken or unreported tend to remain hidden. The

debilitating stereotypes they might unravel remain firmly in place. And those

who have convinced themselves that it couldn’t happen here remain in danger.

Tim Wise is a

Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at

[email protected] Footnotes for this article can be obtained from that

same email address





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