The Imaginary War Against White People

The other day, Ed Kilgore drew attention to an article by McKay Coppins on an odd, yet sadly predictable meme making the rounds at race-conservative news sites. The Treyvon Martin case provided the most recent spark, but this one has popped up every so often since the 2008 election. It concerns the alleged spate of attacks by black youth targeting whites for mayhem and racial revenge. I didn’t have a chance to chime in at the time. But I wanted to note a few things.

Coppins provides quite the compendium of comments by fringe figures–though I suppose Drudge, Bill O’Reilly, and Tucker Carlson count as mainstream these days. Rush Limbaugh’s entry was emblematic: “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering.”

Most notoriously, John Derbyshire was fired last month from the National Review for posting “The Talk: Nonblack version.” This frankly racist essay offered bullet-point public advice to his children. Specific items include the following:

(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.

(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.

(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date…

(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.

(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible…

(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.

Though rarely expressed so awfully, it’s an article of faith among race- conservatives that political correctness prevents us from noting the obvious fact that African-American youth are disproportionately represented among the perpetrators (and victims) of violent crime. In fact, the high crime rate in minority communities has been the most obsessively-covered story in American urban life for at least forty years. If some politically-correct conspiracy has sought to obscure this issue, it has been an epic failure.

Leaving aside Derbyshire’s frank racism, his advice betrays astonishing paranoia and inhumanity at the level of everyday life. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted at Slate, most segregationist southern whites would stop to help a black person who had a heart attack or was injured by the road.

In the wake of the London riots, some low-income Chicago youth were arrested in a scary incident on our normally-sedate north side. That very day, I received several calls from reporters wondering if this was a frightening new trend among black youth to get on Facebook and Twitter and plan racial hate crimes. As Thomas Sowell put things: “What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettoes launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places.”

Um, no. Sure, some disturbing incidents occur. (Google, e.g., “Korean store owners, Los Angeles, 1992.”) Non-racially-motivated robberies and assaults certainly occur. And there’s always the chance that some case of police brutality will blow up. For now, anyway, black-on-white hate crimes are far down the list of prevalent and severe crime concerns.

Despite obsessive media attention at Fox News or wherever, lethal black-on-white crimes are rarer than you might believe. Crime rates are below those of ten years ago. They are way below the levels of twenty years ago. U.S. homicide rates are the lowest they’ve been since the early 1960s. I’m aware of no data to indicate that black-on-white crime is a specifically worsening problem. Coppins cites an FBI report listing 575 reported anti-white bias crimes in 2010. That’s a tiny number in a nation of 300 million people.

In 2008, a graduate student and I examined Chicago medical examiner records for two hundred consecutive homicides involving teenage and young-adult victims. Only eleven of these 200 victims were non-Hispanic whites. I expected to find a few white students who were set upon and killed by robbers (say) at an ATM or a carjacking. I found no such cases. Such things do happen, but not very often in today’s urban America.

Then there’s my own life. I routinely visit tough high schools in low-income communities, needle exchanges, social service agencies, drug treatment and public health clinics. I regularly violated every one of Derbyshire’s rules for fifteen years now.

I’ve had a few frightening incidents. Yet it’s been 20 years since anyone has laid a hostile hand on me. It’s not that I intimidate anyone. I measure five-foot six, and 130 pounds. Like literally millions of other people, I just go about my business, and people don’t bother me. My daughters are two other such people. They have attended majority-minority schools since 2003. Their physical safety has never been an issue. The notion that African-Americans are laying in wait to exact payback from the next available Caucasian doesn’t match reality.

When I read Derbyshire’s piece, I remembered an incident from several years ago. I was pulling off I-57 in Matteson, Illinois. The (slightly juiced) driver in front of me went way too fast and skidded into the snow. Her car wedged itself over a drain pipe fifty feet from the road. I pulled over, and tried to help. At some point, I chatted with the driver. She asked where I lived. I told her. She replied, “I hear that neighborhood is going down.” We both knew what she meant.

A muscular African-American man in sunglasses pulled over to help. He was driving a tricked-out compact Japanese car, out of whose heavily tinted windows emerged the loud PG-13 sounds of modern hip-hop. We didn’t get too far in dislodging that lady’s car. I still hope the driver learned something.

We spend an awful lot of time being frightened of racial others. We don’t have to be so scared.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.