Another Round of White Denial: Drugs, Race and Reality in the ‘Burbs

Published as a ZNet Commentary, August 23, 2001

Here we go again.

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 common with such folks and in such places.

On August 12th, the front page of the Washington Post brought us yet another story about white suburban youth, who, to the amazement of their parents and friends turn out to be stone cold criminals. This time the headlines emanate from “nice neighborhoods” in Northern Virginia, where sinister crimes aren’t supposed to happen. But as local authorities discovered, one of the largest 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 office, or merely typifies as normal, all-American boys. In the instant drama, one of the principal players, named (no joke) Owen Merton Barber IV is accused of murdering Daniel Petrole Jr., a drug-dealing colleague at the behest of another dealer, Justin Michael Wolfe.

Seem implausible? Thanks to 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, though underreported, drug data confirms that 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 percent of 18-25 year olds, but 70 percent of drug users that age. Blacks are 13.5 percent of persons in that age cohort, but only 13 percent of young adult users, while Hispanics are nearly 15 percent of that age group, but only 12 percent of drug users 18-25. As for older adults, whites are far more likely to use drugs heavily, to the point of dying from a drug overdose, and white workers are more likely to have partaken of illegal narcotics in the last thirty days than their black counterparts.

When it comes to drug dealing, the picture changes only slightly, if at all. 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 drug dealer or gang-banger of color 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.

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-20s 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. According to DEA agent, Frank Chellino, Wolfe seemed to be “stable” and “well-mannered.”

Perhaps whites in the ‘burbs need to stop listening to the voices of their elected officials 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 schools.”

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,” will remain in danger.


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