05 February 2007

"Punishing Blacks"

I don't know how much attention this story has got in the States. I vaguely rememember reading something about it last time I was there, but now that the young black perpetrators of a racist attack in Long Beach have been found guilty of hate crimes, the Australian press has taken a detailed look at the case.

It seems like a fairly even-handed treatment of a particularly ugly issue, but one glaring error stuck out: the labeling of racist attacks by blacks against whites as a disturbing "new" trend. It may be new that the mass media are talking about, but attacks of this sort have been going on for almost as long as I can remember. Anyone who regularly travels the streets of most big cities (on foot or on public transport, not in a hermetically sealed steel cocoon) knows this is true unless they are dwelling in a) the suburbs; b) an ideologically blinkered alternative reality; or c) cloud-cuckoo land.

Any hippie or artist or punk who's ever moved into a previously mainly black neighbourhood knows that those perceived to be white interlopers are not always welcomed with open arms. I'm thinking, for example, of one friend who moved into Oakland back around 1991, at a time when it was fashionable for young white punk rockers to go about parroting the slogan "Kill Whitey," or even scrawling it on their clothes. It meant, one earnestly explained to me, not that white people should literally be killed, but that we should all be struggling to expunge the whiteness from ourselves, much as was argued by William Upski Wimsatt, a white dilettante who with implacably oblivious racism argued that we should show our solidarity with "oppressed" black people by dropping out of school, moving into the slums, spray painting neighbourhoods with graffiti, and generally behave in a completely antisocial manner (you know, just like all Wimsatt's imaginary black people do).

It was not long after my friend moved into Oakland that he was chased for several blocks by a gang of black teenagers chanting "Kill Whitey." Shortly after that, a brick came crashing through his front window in honour of the Rodney King riots. That same day another friend and I were in downtown Berkeley (one whole block from the Berkeley police station) when we nearly walked into a baseball bat-wielding mob of young blacks looking for some white people to kill a la Reginald Denny.

So no, racist attacks by blacks against whites are nothing new. In fact if you count - as I'm inclined to do - a large percentage of black-on-white muggings as hate crimes rather than economic ones, they've been going on for a very long time. Left-wing romanticists prefer, when they can no longer obfuscate their way out of the unfortunate fact that blacks commit roughly five times as many violent crimes as whites do per capita, to imagine that black robbers are heroic members of the lumpen proletariat valiantly trying to obtain a crust of bread for their struggling families by pulling a Robin Hood on the overprivileged white oppressor. In reality, most muggings are more about power than money, and young muggers are as often as not more expensively dressed than their victims.

But the leftist ideology of the 60s dies hard, especially when it comes to sensitive racial matters. In that world view, we are only meant to see blacks as victims. Even when a black person commits an unconscionable act, we as whites are meant to look only for what faults in ourselves or in "our" system might have driven him to it. Thus we have the Los Angeles Times agonising that using hate crime laws in cases like the Long Beach attack might end up "punishing blacks."

In fact, they're being used as they should, to punish racists, no matter what their colour. If we're ever going to grow beyond the obsession with race that has strait-jacketed American political, social and cultural evolution for much of its history, evenhanded enforcement of the law, regardless of whose racial ox is gored, is essential. Expecting black people to obey the same laws and behave with the same decency that we would expect of any civilised human being is the opposite of racism.

Try telling that to the egregious Al Sharpton, who despite having long ago been exposed as a fraudster and compulsive liar, is still held up as a "leader of the black community." Rev. Al is at it again this week, trying to stir up outrage over the release of records showing that 55% of people stopped and questioned by the New York Police Department last year were black. "Racial profiling!" screams the demagogue, ignoring the other half of the story, that 68% of all crimes involved black suspects.

If Sharpton cared remotely about the black community, he'd be hailing the NYPD and thanking them for their efforts that have made New York the safest big city in America, because that change has disproportionately benefitted black people, because it is they and their communities who suffered most when crime was out of control back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Possibly because he's a borderline (I'm probably being generous here) criminal himself, Sharpton makes the same mistake that white racists like William Upski Wimsatt (and the editorial board of the LA Times?) make: assuming that there is something congenitally criminal about black people in general.

But that's simply not true. While crime is undeniably far more prevalent among black people, for reasons that may or may not be debatable, the great majority of blacks want, just like people everywhere, to live in safe, clean, healthy communities. Unfortunately, that requires locking up or otherwise restraining the relatively small number of thugs who have historically been allowed to run wild in the ghetto and its surrounds because "it's their culture."

I add as what should be but perhaps isn't an unnecessary postscript, that my own negative encounters with black racists have been very few. I can think of maybe five in the last 40 years, and all but a couple of those were really pretty minor. Contrast that with the hundreds, or probably thousands of encounters in which I was treated with complete openness and friendliness, or at worst a cool politeness, and I personally don't have a lot to gripe about. But at the same time, I could name dozens of friends or acquaintances who've been physically or verbally attacked for no apparent reason other than the colour of their skin. A handful of them are black or brown, but the overwhelming majority are white. My point is not to start an argument over who suffers or perpetrates the most racial attacks, it is to reiterate what in a sane society would be blindingly obvious: that it shouldn't be happening to anybody.


Josh in Seattle said...


I require a bit more clarification:

1. Do you think poverty plays a great role in an increased crime rate in amongst African Americans or do you think it is negative socialization?

2. Do you advocate racial profiling as an effective means of crime prevention?

Larry Livermore said...

1. I think the role of poverty as a cause of crime, whether among African-Americans or other demographic groups, is consistently overestimated. As I've stated here previously, I believe crime causes poverty as much, if not more so, than the other way around. If African-American neighbourhoods were made safer, I think you would see them flourish, with an influx of business and new jobs, thus doing a great deal to alleviate poverty. "Negative socialisation?" That could mean a lot of things, but if you're referring to kids growing up in places or in families where crime and antisocial behaviour is an accepted part of everyday life, yes.

2. Somebody else said this better than me recently, but to paraphrase as best as I can, I don't advocate racial profiling, I advocate behaviour profiling. In other words, if someone is slouching around like a thug, shooting off his big mouth like a thug, acting like a jerk in public, showing a general disregard for the comfort and convenience of others around him, then chances are better than average that he actually is a thug, or at least an ignorant asshole. People behaving in such a way should be regularly stopped, questioned, and otherwise be made aware that they're highly likely to experience unpleasant consequences if they continue down that path. What colour they are should have nothing to do with it, but if, using the above-cited criteria, a disproportionate number of people stopped happen to be of a certain race, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the criteria. It means a disproportionate number of that race or ethnic group need to check themselves.

Josh in Seattle said...

1. I think you will have a hard time with any longitudinal study of a specific "high crime" population that does not take into account poverty. Moreover, I would welcome any information that indicates a crime vs poverty (vs opposite).
My socialisation statment dealt more with role models with within the community or identified with by the community. I fall on the Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, et al side of that argument.

2. That is a) unconstitutional and b)is so subjective as to be impossible to legally support.

Anonymous said...

Does how a person dresses go into your formulations of the "behavior profile?"

What about what they drive? What part of town they live in? Whether or not they are clean shaven?

Where do you draw the line between actual thug-like "behavior" and stereotypical perceptions of what a thug-like person is supposed to look like?

Anonymous said...

And I would be inclined to agree with Josh that such a means of profiling would be unconstitutionally vague.