Racism, Violence and the Irony of Stereotypes

Sometimes you just know it’s going to be a long day.

Especially when the subject line of the first e-mail of the morning reads like this:


There are lots of things one can think upon reading such a well-crafted piece of prose. Among them:

1) Ya’ know, there really should be a hyphen between the words “nigger” and “loving.” If there’s one thing I hate more than racism, it’s ungrammatical racism.

2) Ya’ know, I never would have realized this guy was angry were it not for the use of all capital letters. I sure am glad he didn’t think to use the “shift” key.

3) If a spam filter can catch ads for Viagra, porn and phony financial scams from Nigeria or various places in Eastern Europe, why the hell can’t it catch shit like this? Or, alternately,

4) Damn, Nazis sure do get up early for people without jobs.

In any event, I can’t say that I hadn’t expected it. To begin with, I get these pretty regularly. But even more to the point, I had anticipated something like this soon, precisely because of a story that had just broken a day or so earlier; namely, a report that “swarms” of black youth had gone on a hate-filled violence spree at the Wisconsin State Fair, attacking dozens of whites as the latter attempted to exit the event (being held in a Milwaukee suburb) at the end of its opening night.

Whenever news emerges about crime committed by people of color, especially against whites, the troglodytes at Stormfront and American Renaissance find themselves affixed to their keyboards, feverishly sending out e-mails to any and all they can, hyping the event as proof positive that the “darkies are out to get us all,” and that their calls for racial separation are the only hope for America.

In this particular case, the overt white supremacists were joined in their collective outrage by mainstream conservative commentators, like radio hosts Neal Boortz and Glenn Beck, the latter of whom railed against the press for covering the ongoing violence in England, while ignoring “black teens attacking white people” in Wisconsin.

For others, including the one who brightened my morning coffee with his own special love missive, the real scandal was how the media had covered a hate crime in Mississippi last week, committed by whites against a black man — in which the former beat and then murdered the latter by running him over with a truck — while altogether ignoring the Wisconsin State Fair melee.

“JUST GOES TO SHOW HOW THE JEWS MEDIA SLANTS EVERYTHING,” wrote my electronic interlocutor, again with the all-capital letters, signifying a regrettable state of undermedication on his part.

Ah yes, the “Jews Media.” One can almost envision the scene in newsroom after newsroom across America: Hebraic men in their kippahs, slurping matzoh ball soup, figuring out how they can play up the murder of a black man, which murder was actually caught on a security camera, while ignoring the beating of white people at the Fair.

“Oy Vey! The Wisconsin State Fair? Who even goes there? Probably just a bunch of cheeseheads, whose families came from Germany. Nazis all of them! Oh well, serves ’em right for that whole Hitler thing. Hey Mort, send a nice rugelach to the blacks in North Milwaukee will ya? They’re doin’ the Lord’s work!”

Yes indeed: only bias and crafty Jewish perfidy could explain why the news would cover a story in which a murder had been caught on film, while not giving as much attention to a number of assaults that were not. Absolutely.

In any event, the e-mail went on to demand that I say something about this hate crime committed by blacks against whites, and predicting that I would never do so, precisely because, in his words:


Had there only been one exclamation point at the end of the dare, I might have ignored him. But since he placed three such indicators of his seriousness there, I’ve decided to oblige.

So here’s the thing:

Yes, the attacks were horrible; and yes, the perpetrators should be punished for their actions; and yes, their parents probably are pretty shitty when it comes to raising their kids, just as the parents of the white teens in Mississippi who drove over the black man in their pick-up truck, after taking turns beating him, likely are. And to the extent these crimes were motivated by some form of racial bias — as may well have been the case — we can and should see them as racist attacks, every bit as unacceptable as they would have been had the racial identities been reversed.

But now what? Because that’s the easy part.

The hard part is what comes next; namely, how do we understand these types of attacks (whether perpetrated by people of color or white folks), in terms of their likely causes; and what can we do, beyond merely punishing those responsible, so as to lessen the likelihood of such things happening in the future?

Sadly, reactionary voices have sought to place the blame for the attacks at the feet of the larger black community, as with two Milwaukee Aldermen, who took the event as evidence of larger black cultural pathology, and blamed a lack of “personal responsibility” among black folks for the violence. Others have claimed that attacks such as these can be blamed on schools that supposedly teach black people to hate whites and see them as oppressors (this being the argument put forward by conservative writer and professor John C. Drew a few days ago), or even on the criticism of the rich and big business — really just “code” for white people, according to Beck — offered up by President Obama.

Such arguments, while typical among those on the right, do nothing to move us forward.

First, there are over 200,000 black people in Milwaukee, a few dozen of whom participated in this violence. To suggest that the crimes indicate something about the larger black population, even of that one city, let alone the nation, is the very definition of statistical illiteracy.

Secondly, to use every criminal act committed by people of color as indicative of a group defect, while viewing white criminals as individuals, representing no one but themselves, is the epitome of racism. So, for instance, no one has suggested that the recent crime spree of the so-called “Dougherty Gang” — led by a 29-year old white woman (and self-described “redneck”) along with her two brothers — indicates some broader white cultural defect. For whites, personal responsibility means just that — personal responsibility, as in responsibility that needs to be taken by the actual perpetrators of the deed — while for people of color, far too many expect it to be collective, and demand that the entire group be held accountable for the actions of a few.

Third, to blame the violence on anti-white indoctrination in schools, or arguments about whether the rich are paying their fair share of taxes, takes absurdity to completely new levels. It is doubtful, after all, that the youths who attacked folks at the Wisconsin State Fair are paying very close attention in school to anything (including all the ostensible honky-bashing), or watching Rachel Maddow at night, and thus being imbued with a significant dose of populist sensibilities.

Not to mention, black folks already know plenty about white racism before they learn anything about it in a history class. In a city as racially divided as Milwaukee — a place that for many years was known as the “Selma of the North” — it would take a stunning lack of intelligence not to understand the role that racism has played in determining who lives where, the quality of schools that white kids attend compared to black kids, and the larger economic divide that defines the town and its surrounding suburbs. Indeed, the Mayor of Milwaukee, himself white, acknowledged this history recently, noting that housing and zoning policies — and a long history of opposition by whites to affordable housing in suburbs — has resulted in the city being designated, now, the most segregated in America by the Census Bureau. If a recognition of racism is all it took to cause black people to attack white people, trust me, every suburb in America would be on fire by now.

All that said, it is worth exploring the roots of whatever biases appear to have motivated at least some of the attackers at the Fair. We can begin by listening to the words of one 16 year-old who was recently among the 30-plus young people arrested in the incident. According to the young man, who faces both assault charges and a hate crime enhancer, he and others focused on white people because they were “easy targets.” So this was race-based targeting to be sure, but not motivated by hatred, or as payback for historic or contemporary racism against the black community. If anything, the phrase “easy target” speaks to an aspect of this kind of crime — specifically black-on-white crime — that is rarely discussed but needs to be; namely, that the stereotype of whites held by kids like these is one of weakness and passivity, making it easier to attack us or rob us than to do the same to another black person.

Now that is interesting. Because, after all, where would black folks get the idea that whites were weak and passive? Where would they get the idea that attacking a black person might result in them getting their asses kicked, while attacking a white person wouldn’t? Where do these racialized images — of black strength and toughness on the one hand, and white weakness on the other — come from?

One guess, and trust me, the answer is not from black people.

Black folks didn’t create these racialized images. Black folks didn’t create and perpetuate the stereotype that it was their group that was big and bad and dangerous. Nor did black folks create, as a corollary to that first point, the opposite belief: that whites were weak and less likely to defend ourselves. In fact, those beliefs are part and parcel of a larger umbrella of racism directed against black people, but which, in this case, ends up putting white folks at risk too. If the society puts out the message that black folks are violent, and dangerous, and tough, and to be feared, many whites and many blacks will come to accept those messages, and the necessary flipside: that whites are passive and not to be feared. Then, on occasion, opportunistic thugs may take advantage of that notion, targeting whites in situations like this, because being less tough, we are viewed as “easy targets,” and not just that, but targets who will likely be scared shitless if approached by angry black people, and thus, not put up much of a fight.

It’s ironic, to be sure, that anti-black biases might have a blowback effect such as this; but it’s hard to ignore. It’s much the same with sexism: if we perpetuate the stereotype that men are “natural breadwinners” and women are “natural nurturers,” we not only end up limiting opportunities for women outside the confines of motherhood, we also end up harming men, who come to be viewed as incompetent at parenting, damned near unable to as much as change a diaper, let alone help raise a child into a healthy, productive and compassionate adult. Although the bias was intended to elevate men and subordinate women — and it does that, with a vengeance — it also results in a collateral limitation on mens’ lives as parents.

So while the immediate responsibility for these attacks must be placed upon the young people who perpetrated them, the larger problem is one of deeply-ingrained racist stereotypes against people of color, which then create parallel and opposite stereotypes about whites, the latter of which can, in cases such as this, actually increase the likelihood of white injury. To end the latter, we have to attend to the former.

Likewise, to the extent folks of color (especially young black and brown teens) may be inclined to see whites in a negative light, there is an easy solution, which would not only likely dampen such bias, but would also help build antiracist solidarity among young people generally; namely, rather than talking less about racism and its history (as the right would prefer), we should talk more about it, but include the stories of white allies throughout history as well.

After all, if young people of color and young whites learned that there have been, in every generation, whites who stood with black and brown folks and challenged racial injustice, how might youth of all colors respond to one another differently? If white youth learned that there were role models in their community who they could follow in this regard, how might that change the racial attitudes of white people, and their willingness to challenge racism? And if young blacks in places like Milwaukee learned of those persons — as with Father James Groppi, who stood shoulder to shoulder with black leaders in that city to fight racist policies in the 1960s and 70s — how might such knowledge effect their perceptions of their white brothers and sisters?

In other words, teach not just about racism but antiracist resistance, including that engaged by whites, in Milwaukee and across the nation. Doing so would promote allyship, break down stereotypes on all sides, and encourage the kinds of solidarity that troubled and divided cities like Milwaukee need in order to move forward.

Oh, and you also might want to do what the Milwaukee Youth Council (a diverse group of young people from across the city) recently announced they were going to do; namely, convene a community forum where people can come together and offer real solutions to the problem of racial bias, rather than just point fingers at a community about which far too many negative things are already believed.

In the wake of racial violence like we’ve seen recently in Mississippi and Wisconsin, the answer is to build bridges and get to know each other better — and to take direct aim at the racial stereotypes that ultimately endanger us all — not to condemn entire communities for the ignorant acts of a few.

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