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The Kids are all White


Tim Wise

Let

me get this straight: if people of color respond to an unjust verdict in a

police brutality trial, not to mention years of racial and economic oppression,

by taking to the streets, burning stuff, looting stores and engaging in assorted

violence, it’s called a riot. But if white kids get angry at the thought of

paying $10 for a burrito during a three-day music festival, and decide to burn

stuff, loot ATM machines, throw human feces at camera crews, and engage in

assorted violence, that’s called "a disturbance," or likened to

"a frat party," or considered mere "youthful exuberance?"

And

whereas the first event is "raced"-that is, discussed as a racial

event, or "race riot,"-the latter is discussed as a "youth

melee," with no mention of the racial makeup of said youngsters. Welcome to

the color-blind world of 1999: where color is still quite visible, but where

whiteness remains unobservable to the naked eye; where deviance and anti-social

behavior remain individualized when the perpetrators of said mayhem are

melanin-challenged, but where race becomes the focal point of analysis whenever

the black and brown are involved.

And

while most commentators avoid discussing the conditions which contribute to the

first kind of uprising (as if mere irrationality causes "those people"

to lose control), they pay ample attention to the "root causes" of

white violence. In the case of Woodstock ’99, these included "conditions

that were animalistic," to quote one MTV commentator: among them, not only

the overpriced cuisine-including $4 pretzels and bottled water (oh the

inhumanity!)-but also the fact that trash wasn’t picked up for three days! To

quote another MTV spokesperson: "It was like A CONCENTRATION CAMP."

Indeed, Mauthausen and Dachau surely had nothing on the open field in Rome, New

York."

Excuse

me, but this is some bullshit. What happened at Woodstock was not a

sociopolitical rebellion against corporate greed and expensive foodstuffs (after

all, these same folks thought nothing of forking over $150 for tickets, nor

additional hundreds for beer, t-shirts, tatoos and body-piercings). And it was

not, as one of the organizers claimed, the work of "a few

knuckleheads," or better yet, "anarchists." This was a riot: in

fact, if the thing which makes a riot a race riot is the overwhelming

involvement of people of one race in the festivities, then this was a RACE RIOT.

99% of those involved were white, according to news reports. Compare this with

the muticultural riots in Los Angeles in 1992: 13% white, 25% black (betcha’

never heard that before), and 60% Latino/a. And yet, everyone considers that to

have been a race riot-in fact a black riot, which it was not.

So

let’s play a game: Let’s imagine that 225,000 black folks-mainly young

adults-were to gather for a three day concert. And let’s imagine that a

significant number of these were to flaunt drug use and underage alcohol

consumption, within sight of television cameras and security. And let’s imagine

that a sizable minority of these black youth-on the third day-began overturning

cars, ripping up tents and vendor booths, pulling down lighting stands and

scaffolding and setting fires throughout the venue. In this scenario, would

anyone refuse to call it a riot? Would there have only been 37 arrests (only

seven for activities connected to the rioting)-as happened at Woodstock-despite

the many thousands involved in illegal activity from the time the gates opened?

What’s more, does anyone believe that an event where 99% of the attendees were

people of color-even if it were one-tenth the size of the crowd at

Woodstock-would have been allowed to happen at all with no official law

enforcement presence? Because that’s what happened here: no police until 90

minutes after the rioting began. Prior to that, there were only security guards,

untrained to deal with a riot situation, not to mention the half-dozen or so

sexual assaults and rapes which apparently occurred.

Don’t

get me wrong: I’m not saying Woodstock should have been run like a police state,

nor that folks should have been busted for smoking pot. I’m simply saying that

this event was treated differently than would have been a "black

event," where most participants were of color. Consider the reaction during

the recent Hot 97 concert at the Meadowlands: according to press reports, when a

few members of an "angry crowd" of black folks began pushing security

guards after they were locked out of the hip-hop show-despite having

tickets-hundreds of cops descended on the venue immediately. According to the

New York Daily News: "An Army of state troopers, New Jersey Transit police,

and cops from a dozen nearby towns brought the outburst under control in about

40 minutes."

Likewise,

when black collegians gathered in Atlanta for the annual "Freaknik" a

few years back, the entire police force was mobilized, and the first sign of

lawlessness-including minor traffic violations-was met with the full force of

law enforcement: searches, pat-downs, ticketing, and arrest. Needless to say, at

neither event, nor the popular Smokin’ Grooves Tour in 1997-largely attended by

people of color-would folks have been able to sell $48 bongs (as was done at

Woodstock): after all, drug use and paraphernalia are illegal for those with

dark skin, as a brief look at who’s filling our jail cells will make clear.

And

of course that the race of the Woodstock rioters was a "non-issue"

from the beginning is unsurprising. Whenever whites engage in destructive

behavior, their race is seen as irrelevant, whereas the same acts engaged in by

Blacks or Latinos bring out the chorus of neo-eugenicists, clamoring to explain

how there’s something either genetic or culturally defective about the swarthier

types which causes them to act that way. So when white boys-and only white

boys-shoot up or blow up their schools, and when whites-and only whites-get

involved with some ritualistic, Satanic, vampire cult that kills folks and

cannibalizes them; and when white folks-at least 92% of the time-are the ones

committing serial murder, it’s as if no one can see skin color anymore. But let

black folks do some of that crazy shit just once, and see how long it takes for

the racial pathology police to flash their pseudo-intellectual badges.

And

Woodstock wasn’t the first white riot to be deracialized by the media. This kind

of thing happens all the time, with little comment from the larger society.

Since 1995, there have been riots involving white college students at Colorado

University, Iowa State, Penn State, the Universities of Wisconsin at Whitewater

and Oshkosh, Southern Illinois University, the University of Delaware, Michigan

State, Washington State, Plymouth State, the University of Akron and the

University of New Hampshire. And for what reason did these students decide to

burn, loot and destroy?-either because of the results of a football game, or

because of a crackdown on underage drinking. And so here I sit, patiently

waiting for Charles Murray to explain to me with scientific precision what it is

about white folks’ DNA that makes them riot for the sake of $1 tequila shots.

All

kidding aside, the fact is that our unwillingness to break out of well-worn

stereotypes about what danger looks like-and thus, our widespread adherence to

the notion that people of color are the ones to watch out for-makes us all less

safe and is the source of widespread injustice.

Most

obviously, it means that people of color will continue to bear the brunt of

discrimination by those who perceive them deviant and criminally-inclined: a

form of discrimination which many like Dinesh D’Souza have deemed

"rational," given the supposed disproportionate law-breaking by Blacks

and Latinos.

Likewise,

skewed perceptions of criminality cause us to let down our guards to many of the

most serious threats to public safety: not only the random violence engaged in

by whites, but also the calculated violence of wealthy whites in corporate

America-folks whose decisions each year contribute directly to injury, illness

and death. And that’s a kind of violence the "root causes" of which no

one seems interested in researching.

Yes,

it’s been a banner summer for white violence: Ben Smith’s shooting spree,

Woodstock ’99, the day-trader in affluent Buckhead, the delivery driver in

Gadsden, Alabama, and now the neo-Nazi who shot up the Jewish Community Center

in L.A. Surely this is enough of a trend to warrant a few hundred thousand

dollars from the Bradley foundation to study the phenomenon and a book deal with

the Free Press.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based activist and writer. He is the director of the

newly-formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE), and can be

reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

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