FLASHBACK ESSAY: Color-Conscious, White Blind (15 Years Later: Still Responding to the Same Nonsense)
This essay of mine was original published in LIP Magazine, in October, 1998, as “Color-Conscious, White-Blind: Race, Crime and Pathology in America.” I am reposting it because it struck me that with all the conservative noise about how black folks need to worry less about racism and more about “black on black crime,” the analysis herein was more relevant than ever. It’s amazing how, the more things change, the more right wing thinking remains the same. The pathologization of black people and black communities has been a staple of conservative thought for decades, and once again we see this tendency in full swing. Meanwhile, white misdeeds are never racialized or thought of in group terms at all. So even though the examples in this piece are now dated, the fact that we are still having to have the same arguments fifteen years later indicates that the analysis is still important and timely.
In a 1984 interview, ex-Klansman, David Duke explained: “You know, you really can’t talk about the crime problem unless you talk about the race problem…Blacks are much closer to the jungle than European people.” Six years later, as Duke ran for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana, a supporter told the press: “Once you get rid of the niggers, you get rid of the crime.” Though one might dismiss such invective as the ranting of extremists, it would be only four years later that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve would hit bookstores, becoming an instant best seller. No “extremists” these, Murray and Herrnstein were viewed as legitimate social scientists even though their 552-page tome was little more than a highbrow “up yours” to people of color; a recapitulation of the argument that has always informed racist movements: namely, that there’s something wrong with those people–they’re criminogenic, less intelligent; basically a genetic mess.
For those uncomfortable with Murray and Herrnstein’s resurrection of so-called racial science, owing as it does to such glorious traditions as social Darwinism, eugenics and the Third Reich, never fear: 1995 would bring yet another volume intended to keep the darkies in their place, this time dressed up in the language of cultural defect. And so we had Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, which explains that the real problem with the swarthier types is that their families, values, and behaviors are dysfunctional and culturally inferior. Their DNA is fine, but unfortunately they’ve chosen to act irresponsibly, aided by welfare programs that have rewarded their pathology and prevented them from “acting white,” which, according to D’Souza, is the only sure route to success.
So in just a few short years, comments about the pathology of people of color have gone from the margins of political discourse to the center. Discussions of crime have become increasingly racialized and our dialogue on race increasingly criminalized, such that deviance is now seen by many as synonymous with melanin, or Black culture. Meanwhile whites, no matter how criminal or “deviant” our behaviors may be, are allowed the privilege of individualization. We’re allowed to be “just bad persons,” unlike non-whites who come to be seen collectively as bad people.
Mainstream media contributes to this process in myriad ways: from news clips showing Blacks being taken to jail, to the headline in my local paper concerning a study on injurious behavior among teens, which read: “White teens more likely hurt selves; minorities more a threat to others.” Oh really? Tell that to the victims of the white kids who shot up their schools in Pearl, Mississippi, or Paducah, Kentucky, or Springfield, Oregon. I’m sure they’ll be glad to know that Kip Kinkel was only a threat to himself. Or what about Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, or Jeffrey Dahmer? Perhaps whites only become a danger to others once they’re adults. Or rather, their race is seen as irrelevant to their actions, even while lawbreakers of color are made to represent their larger communities.
Consider that after the Oregon shooting, experts tried to figure out what went wrong with Kinkel, noting similarities between his killing spree and those of his predecessors–well, all similarities except one. Kinkel, like the others was a boy, it was noted. Kinkel, like the others used a gun. Kinkel, like the others talked about violence. While we can rest assured these kids would have been “raced” had they come from Black “ghetto matriarchs” in the ‘hood, it was as if no one could see the most obvious common characteristic among them: their white skin. It gives new meaning to the term colorblind.
Of course this kind of vision defect is typical. After all, we hear lots about “Black crime,” but nothing about “white crime” as such, only white collar crime (though usually the collar isn’t the only thing lacking color). We hear of “Black-on-Black” violence, but nothing of “white-on-white violence,” even in Bosnia where the practice is routine. In fact, I recently did an Internet search, finding only 217 entries for “white crime” (most dealing with the pale collar variety), but 973 entries under “Black crime.” Interesting, considering that the majority of crimes are committed by the majority of the population, which is white. Similarly, “Black-on-Black crime” netted 559 entries, compared to only seventeen for “white-on-white crime,” even though the latter is more numerous.
Nowhere is the de-racializing of white violence more blatant than in discussions of mass civil disturbances, or what less sanguine commentators might call riots. Consider a November 1996 USA Today article, concerning a study at Northeastern University, which found that race had played a role in only half of all riots since 1994. In other words, when people of color rebelled against police brutality in St. Petersburg, race (but apparently not racism) was implicated, but when white rock concert-goers or sports fans rioted in stadiums, race was irrelevant. The white rioters had a race, but it didn’t matter. Thus, when riots erupted in the past few years at Colorado University, Iowa State University, Penn State, the Universities of Wisconsin at Whitewater and Oshkosh, Southern Illinois University, the University of Delaware, Michigan State, Washington State, the University of Akron and the University of New Hampshire — all of them white events, and over nothing so serious as police brutality, but rather crackdowns on underage drinking or the results of a ball game — no one asked what it was about whites that makes us smash windows for the sake of $4 pitchers of Bud Light.
It’s amazing how many crazy whites there are, none of whom feel the wrath of the racial pathology police as a result of their depravity. Killing parents is among our specialties. So in 1994, a white guy in New York killed his mom for serving the wrong pizza; last year, a white kid in Alabama killed his parents with an axe and sledgehammer; and in 1996, Rod Ferrell, leader of a “vampire cult” in Murray, Kentucky, bludgeoned another member’s parents to death and along with the victims’ daughter, drank their blood so as to “cross over to the gates of hell.” Which brings me to rule number one for identifying the race of criminals. If the crime involved vampirism, Satan worship, or cannibalism, you can bet your ass the perp was white. Never fails. But you’ll never hear anyone ask what it is about white parents that makes their children want to cut off their heads and boil them in soup pots.
Ditto for infanticide. When Susan Smith drowned her boys in South Carolina, she had hundreds of people looking for a mythical Black male carjacker, because that’s what danger looks like in the white imagination. We should have known better, especially when you consider how many white folks off their kids: like Brian Peterson and Amy Grossberg, in Delaware, who dumped their newborn in the garbage; or the New Jersey girl at her prom who did the same in the school bathroom; or Brian Stewart, from St. Louis who injected his son with the AIDS virus to avoid paying child support; or the Pittsburgh father who bludgeoned his 5-year old twins to death when they couldn’t find their Power Ranger masks, and were late for day care; or the white babysitter outside Chicago who bound two kids with duct tape, before shooting them and turning the gun on himself. None of these folks’ race was offered as a possible factor in their crimes. No one is writing books about the genetic or white cultural causes of such behavior. In 1995, when a poor Latina killed her daughter in New York by smashing her head against a wall, every major news source in America covered the tragedy, and focused on her “underclass” status. But when a white Arizona man the same month decapitated his son because he was convinced the child was possessed by the devil, coverage was sparse, and mention of race or cultural background was nowhere to be found.
Or consider thrill killing, spree killing, and animal mutilation: three other white favorites that occur without racial identification of the persons involved. In October 1997, a white male teen obsessed with Jeffrey Dahmer killed a 13-year old to “see what it feels like.” In New Jersey, a 15-year old white male killed an 11-year old selling candy door-to-door, but only after sexually assaulting him. Late last year, a white couple in California was arrested for “hunting women,” and torturing and mutilating them in the back of their van. At Indiana University, a white male burned four cats alive in a lab, while in Martin, Tennessee, two white teens set a duck on fire at the city’s recreational complex, and in Missouri, two white teens killed 23 cats for fun, prompting their white neighbors to say, not that there’s something wrong with white kids today, but rather, “boys will be boys.”
It makes one wonder, why aren’t the authorities doing something to stem the tide of white mayhem? Why no heightened surveillance and police presence in their neighborhoods? Why no crackdowns on immigration from Europe–particularly from the former Yugoslavia and Ireland: two places known to produce a particularly dangerous brand of white person? Why no demands for white politicians to disavow white deviance, the way Jesse Jackson, and any other Black figure in America is expected to speak out against Black crime and violence? And why no call for an immediate scientific inquiry to determine if in fact the crimes committed disproportionately by white folks might be genetically predetermined?
And by what standards are people of color the ones with messed-up values? According to a 1994 study of college students, whites are far more likely to drink, they average three times as many drinks weekly as Blacks, are 50 perecent more likely to drink to the point of hangover, and 70 percent more likely to drink until they vomit. Yet based on news coverage of college drinking, one would think boozing it up to be an equal opportunity pastime. In September of ’97, a Time story claimed, “Colleges are among the nation’s most alcohol-drenched institutions. America’s twelve million undergraduates drink four billion cans of beer a year, and spend $446 on alcoholic beverages–more than they spend on soft drinks and textbooks combined.” Yet there was no mention of the racially uneven drinking habits on the campuses. Likewise for a recent Mother Jones article about drinking among women: every woman in every photo getting wasted was white, and needless to say there aren’t many “underclass” women of color going to martini and cigar bars (featured in the piece). Yet the whiteness of these budding alcoholics is glossed over by the writer and probably most readers as well.
Or how about drunk driving? A pathological behavior that claims about 17,000 lives a year, and in which whites are roughly twice as likely to engage as Blacks. According to government figures, white men drove drunk 85 million times in 1993, compared to 5.8 million times for Black men. And yet, officials downplay the racial inequity of drunk driving. James Fell, chief of Research and Evaluation at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says mentioning such stats is “counterproductive,” while Linda Algood, president of the Broward County, Florida chapter of MADD, has said: “A drunk driver is a drunk driver.” Funny how irrelevant race becomes when its visibility might reflect badly on the dominant majority.
The same is true for drug use. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 74 percent of drug users are white, while fewer than fourteen percent are Black. There are 9.7 million whites using illegal drugs in the U.S., compared with 1.8 million Blacks. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, whites ages 12-21 are a third more likely than Blacks to have used illegal drugs; twice as likely to smoke pot regularly; and 160 percent more likely to have tried cocaine. But despite the white face of drug use, most police “profiles” of drug users and pushers read like a description of urban youth of color. Of course, in The End of Racism, D’Souza claims that white drug abuse isn’t really a problem because they “can take advantage of expensive treatment programs,” whereas Black “crack addicts” can’t. In other words, whites are to be excused for their behavior, since the ability to pay your way out of trouble makes such pathology, well, less pathological.
As for the value systems of young Blacks, surveys in 1994 found that Black high school seniors are 32 percent more likely than whites to say professional success and accomplishment are “extremely important;” equally likely to say having a good marriage and happy family life are extremely important; 26 percent more likely to say “making a contribution to society” is extremely important; and 75 percent more likely than white seniors to say “being a leader in their community” is extremely important. And since those who critique “Black values” typically consider religion a “civilizing” institution, it should be noted that Black seniors are more likely than whites to attend religious services weekly, and almost twice as likely to say “religion plays a very important role” in their lives. Overall, Blacks spend twice as many hours weekly in religious activity as whites.
If anything, “mainstream” American values seem particularly damaging to newcomers of color, whose behaviors were less pathological before coming here. According to recent studies, as Latino immigrants become more “Americanized” they dramatically increase their use of drugs and alcohol, as well as participation in promiscuous sexual activity. Perhaps Mexico should tighten their border-crossing policies to keep drunk and stoned white American sexual predators from coming to Tijuana, Cancun, and Cozumel, thereby contributing to the erosion of Mexican family values.
But the racialization of pathology is more than just a source of amusement; it is also a source of danger. By encouraging folks to believe that the threats to their property or themselves are Black and brown, this process encourages discrimination against non-whites, skews our criminal justice priorities, and diverts our attention from larger threats to our well-being. The racialization of danger encourages us to view all criminality through an anti-black lens. Consider the way we talked about the trial of the white officers who beat Rodney King. What is it called in popular discourse? The first Rodney King Trial. But Rodney King wasn’t on trial. White cops named Briseno, Koon, Wind and Powell were, but how many Americans even remember their names–the names of the criminals? So conditioned are we to criminalize Blacks, that even the name we give to this trial reflects the process.
So conditioned is the media to presenting this kind of image, that during the L. A. riots, when a Milwaukee news team wanted to show footage they’d received of a wealthy white female looter, loading designer dresses into her Mercedes, and justifying her actions by saying “everybody else is doing it,” their white producer refused to air the clip. Such imagery didn’t fit his conception of what the riots were about — crazy Black and brown people — so the public understanding of race and danger remained unsullied.
By racializing danger, we lend legitimacy to what D’Souza calls “rational discrimination.” Thus, if certain types of people seem more dangerous, then it’s O.K. to refuse to pick up anyone of their race in your cab, or refuse to hire them, or keep them out of your neighborhood or for the cops to rough them up a bit. It’s rational. Far from mere rhetorical excess this logic has been utilized by a California judge to justify murder. In the 1991 trial of Soon Ja Du, charged with shooting and killing Black teen, Latasha Harlans, the judge handed down only a nominal fine, explaining that the event should be viewed in the context of Du’s family’s “history of being victimized and terrorized by gang members.” Not victimized and terrorized by Harlans, mind you, but by people who looked like Harlans. One can only wonder how this kind of argument would hold up if used by a Black man to justify his killing a white cop because of his prior experiences with police brutality.
Ironically, the racialization of danger has skewed our criminal justice resources while doing nothing to make us safe. In 1964, sixty-five percent of inmates were white, while thirty-five percent were people of color. By 1991, the figures had flipped. Did whites decide to stop committing crime in the intervening years, while people of color went nuts? Or was something else at work? According to FBI data, the share of crimes committed by blacks has remained steady for over twenty years, while the number of Blacks in prison has tripled and their rates of incarceration have skyrocketed. Much of this increase is due to the “war on drugs.” Despite the fact that Blacks are fewer than fourteen percent of drug users, they are thirty-five percent of possession arrests, fifty-five percent of possession convictions, and seventy-four percent of those sent to prison for possession. How is the “drug crisis” to be solved by focusing attention on those least responsible for driving the demand side of the problem to begin with?
Similarly, by encouraging whites to fear Blacks, we paint a highly unrealistic picture of danger that leaves people less safe. Less than three percent of blacks will commit a violent crime in a given year, and only a small percentage of these will choose white victims. Only seventeen percent of the attackers of whites are Black, while three-quarters of them are white. Yet, if we’re encouraged to avoid people of color, we let our guards down to the real sources of danger that confront us: spouses, family members or neighbors of our same race.
Even worse, the racialization of deviance takes our eyes off some of the biggest dangers. White-collar crime costs the U.S. nearly $200 billion annually according to the Justice Department: eleven times the money and property stolen in all thefts combined, let alone “Black theft.” While around 15,000 people are murdered each year, 56,000 die from occupational diseases, approximately 10,000 workers are killed on the job, and 1.8 million suffer serious, disabling injuries, in large part due to safety violations by their employers. Nonetheless, only two-dozen companies have been prosecuted and only two defendants have done time for safety and health violations since the inception of OSHA. Last year, a Michigan employer violated OSHA rules, killed two employees, and received a mandatory moment of silence as punishment. Think about that the next time some politician talks about the need to get tough on lawlessness.
So from now on, when you hear someone talking about what a dangerous world we live in, fight the impulse to picture Colin Ferguson on the Long Island Expressway, or some random gang-banger with a Tec-9. Instead picture Ford Motor Company, which gave us the “Pintorch;” picture the nuclear power industry, or your garden variety fossil fuel-burning power plant giving you or someone you know cancer as you read this; or R.J Reynolds; or the folks who gave us the Dalkon Shield. Then try and picture the heads of these companies. Not a black one in the bunch.
And the next time you pay to insure your valuables against theft from criminals, most of whom you’ve been encouraged to believe have dark skin, ask yourself where’s your insurance against the theft you suffer as a taxpayer every time some defense contractor double-bills the government for doing shitty work on weapons the Pentagon says we don’t need anyway; or when white S&L bandits like Neil Bush take the nation for a $450 billion ride.
And the next time you hear about some flesh-eating, Satan-worshiping teenager who just pickled his grandma, you’ll know his race before you even see his face on the nightly news, and you’ll know that if he’d just spent a little more time in church with the Black folks, none of this might ever have had to happen.