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.
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 Although this decision may be rescinded due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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
same mom then explained: "There are black people and then there are black
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.
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.
be told, racists have always found excuses for their prejudices, and not
surprisingly, they have usually involved fear of black violence.
slave times, defenders of chattel ownership insisted that white domination was
needed to prevent blacks from raping white women and running wild.
Crow laws too, were often rationalized as a necessary mechanism for controlling
black impulses–sexual and violent ones first and foremost.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist activist, writer and lecturer. He can be
reached at (and footnotes for this article can be procured from)