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Fear and Loathing in Suburbia


If

intellectual gymnastics were an Olympic sport, we white folks would be the team

to beat. Especially whites from the suburbs, who go to amazing and tortured

lengths to convince others (and perhaps themselves) that their wish to steer

clear of blacks in the cities isn’t even a little racist.

And

the stars of the team would have to be those south suburb Chicagoans who

recently voted to keep a black Parish school from participating in their

Catholic League Athletic Conference. Although this decision may be rescinded due

to bad publicity within a few days, there is little question that the initial

vote more adequately represented the gut feelings of the persons involved.

Oh

sure, there were the usual insistences that the decision wasn’t racial, but

motivated only by concern for the "safety" of white children and mothers who

would have to travel to the mostly black community of Auburn-Gresham, on

Chicago’s south side for games. You know how "those people" can be, after all:

just waiting to jump Miss Daisy and Peppermint Patty as they pull up in their

Jeep Cherokee.

Yet

the protestations of innocence rising from the manicured lawns of the outer ring

are dubious to say the least. Many of these white families are merely

maintaining the tradition started by their parents three and four decades ago:

whites who moved from the city as soon as blacks began moving in. Now, these

second-generation refugees from post-segregation America are looking to move

even farther away; to avoid even the middle-class and above blacks moving into

what they consider nice, safe (read: white) communities. For most, their hang-up

isn’t class and it isn’t crime. It’s race.

Just

listen to them. One caller to a Chicago columnist put it this way: "If they want

to change the way white people view them, they have to clean up their own act

first. Get rid of the gang-bangers, the drug dealers, and reduce the crime rates

in their own neighborhoods."

The fact that black crime in the cities, including

Chicago, is down

dramatically in the past ten years hardly matters it seems, and has certainly

not been met with a corresponding reduction in white fear.

The

fact that whites in Chicago are two to three times more likely to be violently

victimized by another white person than by a black person apparently matters

even less.

And

the fact that those black drug dealers are staying in business in large part due

to the drug habits of some of these suburban whites themselves–well, that’s the

truth that dare not speak its name.

Or

consider the offerings of one white suburban mom, terrified at the thought of

her freckle-faced young’uns having to venture into the big, bad city: "I’m not

worried about the kids we’d be playing against. But the people around the

school, who knows what they would do." Why, impale you with their poison-tipped

spears and eat you of course. Jeez, don’t these silly white people know

anything?

This

same mom then explained: "There are black people and then there are black

people."

True

enough.

And

by the same token, there are white people, and then there’s John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy, you’ll recall, was a

white Chicago suburbanite who lured a bunch of young white men to their deaths

while their white parents were probably patting themselves on the back for

getting out of the shadow of Comiskey Park, in the "dangerous" part of town.

Oh–and not to put too fine a point on it–but while Windy City white folk have

been hyperventilating about would-be black predators on the South side, word is

out that a fine, upstanding product of the mostly-white Chicago suburb of Oak

Forest killed at least a half dozen women from 1995-1997.

That’s right, yet another white male serial killer. And in keeping with the

proud heritage of crazy white men for whom killing one person is just not

enough, Paul Runge apparently fancied dismembering his victims and scattering

their body parts across two states. Nice.

It

makes one wonder if perhaps the black parents from Auburn-Gresham should rethink

their attempts to join this league. After all, some flesh-eating,

body-burying-under-the-house wingnut might be cruising the ball fields of

Pleasantville. Better to stay in the ‘hood, where you normally have to really

piss someone off before they kill you; where no one hears voices telling them to

make a soufflé out of their parents or sacrifice small woodland creatures to

Satan; and where someone might notice if their child was building three dozen

bombs in the house, or planning to shoot up the school.

Truth

be told, racists have always found excuses for their prejudices, and not

surprisingly, they have usually involved fear of black violence.

In

slave times, defenders of chattel ownership insisted that white domination was

needed to prevent blacks from raping white women and running wild.

Jim

Crow laws too, were often rationalized as a necessary mechanism for controlling

black impulses–sexual and violent ones first and foremost.

And

whites who resisted desegregation almost always conjured up images of blacks

with switchblades attacking little Susie and Johnny as part of some insatiable

Negro bloodlust. Yet, all of them would have sworn they weren’t racists. They

were just being "realistic." After all, "those people" really do have higher

crime rates, don’t they?

Well

yes, if by "crime" you mean the traditional interpretation of the term: violence

or property offenses committed on the street or in the home, which are punished

as crimes by the justice system. Since these kinds of offenses are highly

correlated with low socioeconomic status, there will be a higher rate of

offending in communities of color, which thanks to the interplay of race and

economic marginalization will tend to be poorer.

Then

again, if we thought of crime as any behaviors that result in unnecessary death,

injury and illness (like the manufacturing of tobacco and numerous faulty

consumer products, as well as corporate pollution, which contributes to

occupational disease and death at three times the rate of homicides), then the

answer would be no. But we don’t think of it that way, so we stay focused on the

violence of the dark and poor, over that of the white and wealthy.

And

even regular old violence and dysfunction ain’t just for black people anymore

(of course, it never really was, as the Crusades, lynching, Indian genocide, the

theft of Mexico and a certain German dictator all pretty well demonstrated).

Evidence from around the nation makes it quite clear: white folks can break the

law and do damage with the best of ‘em.

In California, even as felony arrests for black and brown

youth have plummeted by a third since the 1970′s, the rate for white adults over

30 has gone up 171%. There are now twice as many such whites being arrested for

felonies each year in

California, as there are youth of color: a complete flip-flop over the course of

two decades.

Nationally, whites commit about 56% of all violent crime. Whites are about twice

as likely as blacks to be involved in child sexual molestation (so who is the

real threat to these white suburban children?) White youth are more than twice

as likely as black youth to kill their own parents. White youth are more likely

than black youth to use drugs, (and whites generally are far more likely to be

heavy users). Whites are nearly twice as likely to drive drunk. White males are

more likely to bring a weapon to school with them than black males are. And

rates of criminal victimization are actually slightly higher in suburban schools

than in urban ones.

(For

those who would like footnotes for these facts, my e-mail is at the bottom, and

I’ll be happy to send them to you)

On a personal note, I attended college in one of the

"blackest" cities in the U.S.–demographically and culturally–(New Orleans),

and worked in virtually all-black public housing projects, including

developments that were at that time considered the "worst" and most dangerous in

the country. And I saw fewer drugs in those communities in a year than I saw in

one week in my freshman dorm at Tulane

University: lots of them,

as it turns out, being taken and sold by guys from the Chicago suburbs.

On the other hand, when my mostly black baseball team went

to a rural area outside of Nashville to play a scrimmage when I was eleven, we

were surrounded by a dozen pre-pubescent, tobacco chewing, shit-kickers, who

threatened to beat us up. But that didn’t make me judge everyone in little

Joelton, Tennessee as a

racist or potential assailant, any more than whites outside Chicago should make

such judgments about inner city residents.

God

knows: if I were going to use personal experience as a way to justify engaging

in "rational discrimination," I’d be in real trouble. After all, in my lifetime,

I have been held up by a black man, had my apartment broken into by two white

men, been shot at from a passing vehicle in which there was a white and black

man, and had my car vandalized by a veritable rainbow coalition: according to

police, a team of one white, one black, and one Hispanic.

So by

the logic of suburban whites around Chicago, I should be scared of damned near

everyone, and should either live in Chinatown, or never leave my house.

Don’t

get me wrong: thanks to the steady misrepresentation of crime and violence as a

black and brown thing, there have been times when I too have responded in

stereotypical fashion to a person of color: with fear and insecurity. But I was

also taught to think, and to separate logic from foolishness and lazy mental

categorizing. Maybe that’s the difference. I was taught to resist those

thoughts, to combat them. Most of all, to admit that they are wrong.

Perhaps one day, whites will see black people as something other than an

undifferentiated mass of social pathology. Perhaps we’ll begin to think about

the message we send–not only to blacks but to our own children–when we imply

that the places where some people live are forbidden, God-forsaken, beyond the

pale (pun intended) hell-holes, where it is alright for "them" to live, but not

even good enough for us to visit. Perhaps we’ll come to realize that the harm we

do by sending that message is far more pernicious and long lasting than any

threat of being carjacked in the "ghetto." In other words, perhaps one day we’ll

grow up.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist activist, writer and lecturer. He can be

reached at (and footnotes for this article can be procured from)

tjwise@mindspring

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