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With your feet in the air, and your head on the ground . . .


{Thursday, April 17, 2003}

What's Wrong With White Fear?

The other day, I'm driving around with a friend, looking for a place to play basketball. It's the first gorgeous day of the spring, so everyone's out, and the first three playgrounds we try, the courts are full. We go by the school at Prospect and Broadway, and that's crowded, so we cruise on down to Columbia, where there's a court about a block north of Main St. and the East end of Central Sq. Voila, there are two guys on one end of the court, and no-one at the other end - open court! As I'm slowing down, my friend says "Uhhhh . . . let's NOT play here." I'm incredulous. Why? He says it's because it doesn't seem like a safe neighborhood, that he'd be really uncomfortable. It's broad daylight. I've played there multiple times before, never had anything like a problem.

"Because there are black people?!?" I ask. He insists it's not because they're black, it's because of how they're dressed, how they seem to just be hanging out on the street with nothing to do.

This has happened before . . . it happened recently, in fact . . . I can't see any difference between neighborhoods, except in terms of the color of the people you see on the sidewalk, yet white friends of mine insist that one feels safe, the other doesn't, and adamantly deny that it has anything to do with race; they get offended and angry when I suggest that it must be.

The thing is, I get angry too. I get outraged. I don't get it, I despise it, I think it's idiotic and cowardly and lame . . . and wrong, too, but that's secondary.

My friends don't seem to think any of this is at all valid. They feel like they're simply making a rational judgement of risk, and avoiding dangerous situations, and they see nothing wrong with that.

Later, after an extended discussion, I ask my friend how likely he thinks it is that you/I/he (someone white) would be messed with, "going into a neighborhood like that".

"75%" he says.

That's either so wrong, by so many orders of magnitude, that it's ridiculous, or I'm so completely different from your average white person that all y'all who keep telling me I'm white should back down. I grew up in comparable neighborhoods (to Central Sq.) in Philadelphia (Germantown and Mt. Airy), meaning I spent about 16 years there, including lots of time in public places, on playgrounds, playing basketball, hanging around congregating, bored kids (of all colors) . . . and at night, too, plenty of times. On time, when I was about 9, some other kid (about the same age) pulled out a knife, and just kind of showed it to me. That was weird, but no harm and no threat. One other time, two black kids yelled at me and asked me what I was doing in their neighborhood. Okay, again, messed up but not a big deal. Plenty of times, I was verbally abused on the basketball court for being a "white boy", but that's just trash talk, there's nothing threatening at all about it.

I was never robbed.

I was never assaulted, in any way.

I was never so much as threatened.

"Black" neighborhoods are not THAT fucking dangerous. 16 years, zero incidents. Get over it, people.

It's been pointed out to me that getting angry about this - which I do - isn't very constructive, and isn't going to help anybody. I can acknowledge this. So I'm trying to figure out what I can do, what I can say, how I can make people see my point of view, and - as I see things - conquer their completely unreasonable fears.

I've made a few attempts to look up crime statistics neighborhood-by-neighborhood (in any city), to get a rational measure of relative danger. I haven't been succesful. If anyone feels like doing a superior job of web-data-mining, please help me out here. It would be hard, in any case, to extract a valid measure of "how likely a white person is to be messed with walking around a bad/black neighborhood for an hour" which is kind of the relevant psychological variable. Now, what I'm told is that this is obviously somewhat higher - and probably a lot higher - than "how likely the same person is to be messed with walking around a nice/white neighborhood" - and that as long as there's any difference, avoiding the bad/black neighborhoods is a rational choice. I disagree. I think it's a minimal, minimal risk, and that to live a full life, you have to just say fuck it, and take (ignore) all those little risks. Otherwise, you end up never driving, never riding a bike - hell, never walking, in downtown Boston - you end up never eating steak, never gambling, never having sex, living in a gated community and never getting the fuck out. You end up stagnating. You might as well end up dead.

But wait, I'm told, isn't it anyone's free will to choose not to do any one of those things? Isn't it possible to live a life of moderation, and still avoid certain small risks of our choosing? Aren't I going to ridiculous extremes, here?

Yes, I guess it is, and yes, I guess I am. The point is, I think white people, out of fear and ignorance bred of inexperience, vastly overestimate the "dangers"/risks of bad/black neighborhoods. They happily take big risks, with regards to their health and wealth (driving expensive cars fast and aggresively on crowded roads) while determinedly avoiding small risks (like playing ball for an hour, a block away from Central Sq.)

Even if it's irrational, though, is it wrong?

I can step down from my philosophical amoralist perch, here, and dig into this. I think it is. I think fear and ignorance about race and class perpetuate a damaging stratification. I think people discriminated against, even passively, through avoidance - feel the discrimination, and feel stigmatized. I wish I could make a stronger case than this, though, because it doesn't seem to have much of an effect. People don't seem to find it compelling; or, maybe, feel they have reasonable reasons for their behavior, and don't feel the moral downside is so great, by comparison.

And, people seem totally uninterested / unwilling to so much as attempt to learn how to behave so as to make what they feel to be a threatening environment less so. They claim that maybe there's just this huge gap, that I know what to do, how to act, and what to say, so I'm safe but they're not. But they, essentially, feel like they're stuck being white/susceptible, and since it's impossible for them to change, they feel justified in remaining scared and or ignorant - since so much as taking the time to gain experience hanging out in bad/black neighborhoods would be such a risk.

I don't know. It blows my mind. And to other people, it just seems totally insignificant / obviously reasonable.

posted by Miles 12:39 PM

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