enough about religion...let's lighten up and talk about race

"You forgot Lesson 3. Avoid young black men in Capitol Hill."

--a commenter on the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, in reference to an armed robbery story.

What makes me uncomfortable about what he said, is that I've thought the exact same thing. Not about avoiding young black men, generally, but specifically avoiding them in Capitol Hill. Because if you look through all of CHS' coverage of street crime on the Hill, the perpetrators 95% of the time are young, black, and male. And if you look at the census data for the neighborhood (zip 98112, especially tracks 74-76), the African-American population is between 0 and 10% of the whole.

So...if I don't see that many black people walking around in my neighborhood, and the overwhelming majority of street crime in my neighborhood is committed by young black males, is it rational to be suspicious of the young black males that I do see walking around my neighborhood? I honestly don't know.

In contrast, if you look at my old neighborhood on the census maps (zip 27704, track 102), where there are slightly more black people than white people, it wouldn't make sense to me to view every young black male on the street as a potential threat, because the odds are they are my neighbor and most of my neighbors aren't out to rob me. And you know what...unless they were acting in a suspicious manner, I really never gave young black guys in that neighborhood a second thought when I lived there.

I'm not saying this to try and make some case that I'm not a racist. I know I'm not a racist, and I don't think anyone who knows me would think that I am. But it is interesting (and disquieting) to me how much I find my gut-level reactions being shaped by the neighborhood in which I live. Particularly as I now live in the whitest and most affluent neighborhood I've ever lived in as an adult.

Somehow, this scene seems appropriate.


RW said...

You want to talk about gut-level reactions, and I'll say it's conditioning.

Yesterday we took our granddaughter into town (Chicago) and spent the whole day and night there.

All I could think about, when looking at young black men walking the streets and all, was that they're probably the never-seen sons of the never-considered middle-class black America out Christmas shopping.

Truth to tell the biggest concern I had (relative to my granddaughter) was the white asshole who was as drunk as a skunk and looked like nobody's friend when he came down the sidewalk.

I think it's attitude. Sometimes we white people are just assholes.

Face it.

Brian said...

"...the never-seen sons of the never-considered middle-class black America..."

Really? If the black middle class isn't alive and well and visible in Chicago--its most prominent member currently having taken up temporary residence in DC--then where is it visible?

I actually think this goes back to the point I hoped to make--and failed, I guess--about context. There is a strong black middle class in Chicago, and in Durham, and pretty much anyone who lives there understands this. In other words "black" is not a good proxy for "poor" or "criminal". Not because people in Chicago or Durham are more enlightened about race, but because it is empirically true!

Whereas in lily-white Seattle--and particularly the part in which I live--I think we are more inclined to see the "other" as hostile and potentially dangerous. Because the "other" is something that we just don't see very much.

Actually, this reminds me of an experience I had (and had forgotten about) in Thousand Oaks, CA, which is about as white as it gets. I was walking to a convenience store in the early evening, that was clearly open, the clerk was visible through the window, but the door was locked. I knocked, and he let me in. His explanation was that he had seen a black guy in the parking lot earlier. Not "a black guy up to no good" or "a black guy that looked like he was casing the place"...just "a black guy".

RW said...

It is simply my impression that most of white Chicago continues to flinch at the sight of a black man walking down the street even if he's wearing a tie. My observations could be off I guess.

Gino said...

i grew up in LA, surrounded by japs, blacks, and mexicans (Gardena, CA, look it up. mucho jap).

i was never threatened by a jap. occassionally a mexican. usually a black.
to be fair to all the 'good ones', you could tell which black to avoid and which ones were cool by their body language/ attitude/ etc. being black wasnt the problem itself, but the skin color was a first indicator to watch for the other signs that told to you be wary.
every one of my friends who ever got jumped or robbed were victimized by a black, including myself and including my black friends. you see, even the blacks were afraid of blacks.

you learned the difference between blacks and niggers if you wanted to stay safe while at the same time not reject honest friendships with black kids. and as a bonus: you were less likely to get jumped if you had a brother with you. yeah, blacks were racist in the victim choosing. you surprised?

racial harmony was a nice lesson in school, and the PSA's telling us to be nice to black kids and all that... but i wonder who was telling the black kids to be nice to the rest of us?

ditto with the mexicans, but they were never a real issue for me because i was from the neighborhood, and mexican gangs had a respect for that sort of thing.

you live in the gay town,though. black culture really frowns on that stuff. could be that black gays wont live there as a way to not disappoint their families with that mailing address, but arrive in the evenings to visit their friends who live there.
that might be why you have so much black foot traffic. just guessing...

chicago attitudes are somewhat different than LA attitudes. my grandma didnt hate anybody, never wished ill on blacks, but was scared of them. moving to CA when they retired taught her a little different attitude. her car broke down in Compton, in front of a bar, and she thought she was dead for sure when one of the middle aged age men (black, of course) came out to help change her tire.

chris said...

I am not scared of the black guy that lives in Montana.

Brian said...

@ Gino--it's pretty clear there is a subset of criminals that come to CH to rob people. They aren't here to club on the down-low.

Actually, I'm pretty sure one reason to come here is that late at night you can almost certainly find someone walking alone who has had too much to drink. Easy target.

@ all--Just to be clear: I am not terrified of black people in my neighborhood. I don't think most are criminals. And the aforementioned statistical justifications notwithstanding, I don't actually think that I am in great danger of being robbed or worse walking around, by any particular type of person, or really at all.

I just found the fact that a pretty nakedly prejudiced comment resonated with me *even a little* unsettling, but also interesting in my bizarre, detached sort of way. It seems worth exploring.

...because we all have work to do there...

Gino said...

"...because we all have work to do there..."

thats such bullshit.

we are not all guilty. we dont all have work to do 'here'.

we develope prejudices for a reason, and in the city, that resaon is survival. survival is a natural instinct of man.

i'm not guilty of anything because i have my prejudices, but those i have can be blamed upon those persons who created the reason for thier being there.

i grew up watching sesame street, and its lectures and imagery... and then i went outside to play in its back alley. they are are not the same place.

and not all of the 'other kinds' of people were waiting for me with a smile on their faces to be my friend.

chris said...


Glad to hear I'm not the only one without the white guilt gene.

Brian said...

Wanting to improve something in oneself =/= guilt.

And I do think Avenue Q has it right...we're all a little bit racist.

Gino said...

the KKK is racist, and we are not all a lil bit KKK.

but how is supression of survival instincts an improvement?

pit bulls make great family pets, and sometimes they are deadly. i'm sure you 'read' a dog's body language and assess a situation before you approach, right?
its survival instinct based upon knowledge you already have, and some of it may even be first hand.
its a rightfully held prejudice. and a smart one.

and it may be unfair to use this approach on all pit bulls, but never think twice when approaching a dalmation.

unfair, yes, but it is wisdom born of knowledge.

'racist' is an accusation of evil acts and intent.
'prejudice' is a thought process. i admit to one, and we all have it, while challenging anybody to prove the other.