Thursday, August 09, 2007

Facts? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Facts!

Racism, White Anxiety and the Projection of Personal Inadequacy

By Tim Wise

The electronic messages I receive from overt racists would be hilarious were they not so sad, so indicative of an inability to do basic research, interpret data once discovered and then fashion an intelligible argument. That the American educational system is failing may be a matter for open debate, but on this score--its success or failure at turning out people who can think critically--its inadequacy is almost beyond the scope of rational disagreement.

They come in different types, these dispatches from the land of white racial narcissism: But whether raw and ignorant (as in the almost daily and angry reminders of my romantic fondness for black folks--this hardly being the way in which they phrase it), or cool and calm (as with the pseudo-scholarly claims of proven genetic differences between whites and everyone else), there are several things the racists have in common. First and foremost, these include the tendency to only see what they want to see, while studiously ignoring any evidence that gets in the way of their worldview.

So just last night I received a note from someone seeking, as with so many others, to justify their contempt for people of color by claiming:

"Here in Manchester, New Hampshire we historically had a very low crime rate. Now with the influx of minorities in the last few years the crime rate has soared. We have perhaps a two percent minority population in the area and they commit roughly half our crime. That's not hysteria or imagination. Its (sic) a fact in the newspapers and on the nightly news."

Therein, the writer is making several claims which deserve examination, and which upon said examination prove to be utterly without merit. They are:

1) An increase in the number of persons of color in Manchester has resulted in a significant increase in crime over the last several years;

2) People of color commit about half the crime in Manchester, despite being only around two percent of the population, and this we know because;

3) The media tells us so, via their daily representations of criminal activity and criminal perps, both in print and broadcast mediums.

First things first: that people who write things like this, and who normally are quick to distrust anything they see on television, would cite the nightly news as the definitive source for understanding crime, and who commits it, seems a bit disingenuous to say the least. More to the point, relying on media representations of criminality is almost guaranteed to result in less understanding of the problem, rather than more. To begin with, papers and TV only cover a statistical handful of crimes committed. What's more, according to multiple studies of news broadcasts (especially at the local level) people of color are over-represented in stories about crimes, relative to the share of crime for which they are actually responsible. Crimes committed in a given area by whites are less likely to receive coverage, either because they are more easily covered up (the relative insularity of suburban and upper-middle class communities tends to protect residents from having their misbehaviors catalogued publicly), or because media outlets, being concentrated in larger urban areas, choose the easiest route, which means covering crimes closest to their stations and offices.

Even more importantly, the argument put forward by the racist from Manchester was simply wrong.

In point of fact, crime in Manchester has not risen, but fallen over the past several years--the precise time when the population of persons of color in the city was increasing. In other words, the position taken by the racist isn't only false, it is the exact opposite of reality. Though the percentage of folks of color there is still pretty small (about ten percent of the total) the numbers have increased in the last decade, even as crime has declined.

According to FBI data available here, most serious crimes in Manchester are down, many of them considerably, since 1997, even though the population has risen. This means the crime rate (crimes divided by population) has fallen even further. The murder rate has fallen, as has the rate for rape and sexual assault. Although robberies are up since 1997, they have fallen over the last two years and seem headed downward again. Aggravated assaults are higher than the late 90s, but are also falling since 2004. Burglary has fallen dramatically, as have larceny and motor vehicle theft. In all, during the period of increasing minority presence in Manchester, the number of serious crimes (Index Crimes in the parlance of law enforcement) has dropped from roughly 5,000 incidents annually to just under 4,000, all while the overall population was growing. If the number of crimes have fallen by about twenty percent, even while the population grew by more than five percent, this means the crime rate in Manchester is down by roughly a fourth since the late 90s. Hardly a reality that supports the racist worldview of the person writing to me, or others like him.

After just a five minute Google search (so simple, even a racist can do it) I also stumbled across an article in which police in Manchester note that drugs have become far less of a problem than was the case fifteen or twenty years ago when the city was whiter. So the more black and brown folks, the less drugs apparently. Which makes sense actually, seeing as how all the available data indicates that whites are equally or more likely to use drugs than either blacks or Latinos, contrary to popular perception.

After collecting the definitive data on crime in Manchester and sending it to the person who had taken the time to share their ignorance with me, a reply came back, which, although entirely expected (after all, true believers, be they religious or racial zealots are rarely willing to learn anything), was nonetheless disturbing. To wit:

"My argument is that the color of crime is black and you can play with the numbers all you want but like I said my eyes and ears do not deceive me."

So there you have it. Facts don't matter. Data doesn't matter. Eyes and ears, filled with the partial and inaccurate representations of crime in the mass media (not to mention racist websites and organizations like American Renaissance, which sites my detractor apparently visits as often as most people move their bowels) are what matter.

That the color of crime, in Manchester and nationwide, is not in fact black takes literally a matter of minutes to ascertain. As for Manchester, although I could find no information as to the racial makeup of criminals in the city, the fact that crime had been dropping, even as the number and share of persons of color in Manchester had been growing, certainly seems to mitigate against the notion that blackness and crime are synonymous. Additionally, I was able to find a list of registered sex offenders in Manchester, which noted the race of the perps in question. As of early 2007, there were 237 registered offenders on the list, and all but eighteen (meaning, ninety percent) were non-Hispanic whites. So whatever the color of the guy who just robbed the liquor store may be, the color of the guy who's flashing your kids in the park (or worse) is decidedly more pasty in tone.

Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but the white criminals in Manchester are not only more numerous, they also seem to be of a particularly stupid sort, as with the man who, in early July, robbed a bank dressed as a tree. Apparently, the middle aged white male (come to think of it, the same demographic as that which disproportionately frequents white supremacist websites--coincidence? Methinks not) robbed the Citizen's Bank in Manchester, with tree branches attached to his body with duct tape. He also had glasses and a blue shirt, both of which probably tipped off the tellers to the fact that he was not really a tree. Nice try though.

Nationally as well, although the crime rate for blacks is higher than that for whites--according to the research because of conditions of extreme poverty, and the dysfunctions that regularly flow from living in highly concentrated, overpopulated urban spaces--the fact remains that African Americans commit only about one out of four violent crimes in the U.S.

According to the annual victimization surveys taken by the Justice Department (which give a more complete picture of total crime, by taking into consideration crimes that go unreported to police), blacks in 2005 committed twenty-four percent of all violent crimes in the nation, where the race of the perp was known: about 1.2 million incidents, out of approximately five million in all. Even if we assign a good percentage of the white perps' crimes to Latinos (most of whom are classified racially as white in the data), this would still leave the responsibility for the majority of violent offenses on white folks, even using the most restrictive, Hitler-friendly definition of the term. So, the color of crime is not black, but mostly white, and not just for corporate misconduct, where we might expect this to be the case, but even for regular violent crimes.

And since whites are about five times more likely to be personally victimized by another white person, it is especially absurd for whites to spend our time--as so many of the folks who write me obviously do--worrying about black or brown criminals hurting us. While they panic at the sight of even a few persons of color on their block, white kids are vandalizing the neighborhood, white men are driving drunk to and from their homes, white folks are molesting children, dealing drugs, cooking up meth, or burying two dozen people under their houses (serial killing being one of our specialties as well). A little perspective is in order, but rarely to be found for those whose racial animosities, insecurities and resentments blind them to the truth.

And so I expect to receive messages like this one again, probably several before the end of the week, none of which will be any better thought out than the one before it. And all of which will demonstrate, even if only subtly, the deep-seated psychological dysfunction at the heart of racism: the fear that one is not, in fact, superior, but rather inferior. White supremacists, I'm starting to realize, don't really believe what they're saying--not deep down, that is. They look around and see that light skin is a recessive trait the world over, that indeed they (we) are the odd ones on the planet in terms of pigmentation. They see the economies of the white west faltering, slowly (or perhaps not so slowly), being challenged by that of China, among others. They see people of color excelling in any arena where they are given full and equal opportunity (not enough arenas, to be sure, but still); they see a popular culture in which people of color are among the nation's most revered symbols of what's hip, in spite of the profound inequities that still plague the larger social systems and which tend to favor whites. Cool is not Elvis or James Dean, or Cary Grant, or Frank Sinatra anymore: it's P-Diddy, or Jay-Z, or Russell Simmons, or whomever. White women are more likely to hang on the words of Oprah than their mostly white husbands (Ok, so neither of those may be such good things, but you get the point). They see a world in which global white supremacy is everywhere being challenged. In which the white world's militaries are incapable of subduing a rag-tag bunch of insurgents, with darker skin. In which they themselves have accomplished little, despite all the good things to which they felt entitled as white people, mostly men, all these years.

By lashing out, calling other people by racial slurs, or seeking to pathologize them (as if they were the inferior ones), white supremacists can protect themselves from the insecurity that truly gnaws away at them. For if there is one thing I've learned over the years it's this: truly amazing talents never need to tell others how truly amazing or superior they are. They just go out, do the work, and demonstrate their excellence silently. They need no cheerleaders. Those who publicly proclaim how great they are, on the other hand, are almost always trying to convince themselves. And apparently, given their persistence, they are finding the job harder than they imagined.

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