Fear and Loathing in Suburbia: Crime and the Irrationality of White Racism

Published as a ZNet Commentary, July 9, 2001

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 lengths to convince others (and perhaps themselves) that their wish to steer clear of blacks in the cities isn’t the least bit 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 the decision was reversed shortly thereafter due to bad press, there is little doubt that the initial vote more accurately conveyed the gut feelings of those involved.

Oh sure, there were the usual assurances that the decision wasn’t racial, but based only on concern for the “safety” of white kids and moms who would have to travel to 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 Range Rover.

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.

Don’t believe me? Well just listen to them. As one caller to a Chicago columnist explained it: “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 decade hardly matters it seems, and has certainly not been met with a corresponding reduction in white fear. 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. As for drug dealers, the fact that quite a few of them are likely staying in business due to the drug habits of some of these suburban whites themselves–well, that’s the truth that dare not speak its name.

One white suburban mom, terrified at the thought of her freckle-faced young’uns venturing into the city explained: “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 poison spears and eat you of course. Don’t these 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 dozens 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 “bad” part of town. Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but while Windy City whites panic about black predators on the South side, word is out that an 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 wing nut might be cruising the ball fields and basketball courts of Pleasantville. Better to stay in the ‘hood, where you have to really piss someone off before they kill you; where no one hears voices tell them to make a souffle out of their parents or sacrifice small woodland creatures to Satan; and where someone might notice if their kid was building four dozen bombs in the basement, 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 the 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 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 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 violence and dysfunction aren’t just for black people anymore (of course, they never really were, as the Crusades, lynching, Indian genocide, the theft of Mexico and a certain German dictator pretty well demonstrated). Evidence from around the nation makes it clear that whites 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 1970s, the rate for white adults over thirty has gone up 171 percent. 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 sixty percent 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.

On a personal note, I attended college in one of the “blackest” cities in the U.S., demographically and culturally, 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 to justify engaging in “rational discrimination,” I’d be in 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, one white, one black, and one Hispanic. So by the logic of suburban whites around Chicago, I should be scared of most everyone, and either live in Chinatown or never leave home.

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 more pernicious than any threat of being carjacked in the “ghetto.” In other words, perhaps one day we’ll grow up.

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