Friday, November 11, 2005

High Profile

This is not a terrifically useful post. It's not about Alito, or about the debacle that Bush's second term is rapidly becoming, or the fact that no one's talking about the earthquake in Pakistan that caused even more devastation than last year's tsunami, or my curiosity about whether this number of extreme natural disasters in less than a year should be cause for concern--I mean, .0005% of the world's population at least has been wiped out by two natural disasters of grotesque proportions in the last nine months, should we talk about this? It doesn't sound that substantial, but nor would it take that many more years, all things considered. I want to write about all those things, but I've been so clogged with being busy that only things that hit me on a personal level have gotten in. Personal as in either things I've read or events that have happened to me.

So, spoilers for this post are Grisham's A Time to Kill and Kozol's The Shame of the Nation.

I work in South Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago's far West Side, a not terrificaly safe area most of whose residents are African American. I've worked there for a year and a half, three school semesters, and for two of those three I have regularly gotten off the Forest Park Blue Line and walked from my stop to the school where I work, about a ten-minute walk. Unless another instructor from my after-school program is present at the time, I'm generally the only non-black person I encounter on that walk. It's a walk I take with street smarts, obviously; I grew up in a city, and I'm careful and conscious of what my presence on streets is. When I lack in confidence, when I look lost or upset, I know, and when I know my route I am never any of those things. On Thursday, a cop car containing two white cops and somebody in the backseat who was obscured by a huge, puffy tan jacket with a fur-trimmed hood stopped as I waited to cross the street, and the driver rolled down his window to ask me, "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine," I replied in a rather huffy fashion, a little too startled at knowing what was happening to respond better than that (I'm still kicking myself over that).

"Okay, just checking."

"Thank you, goodbye." They drove on and I continued to school, feeling about as dirty for being a white woman as I have ever felt in this country.

I would like to think of myself as the kind of person who would have told them off directly, who would have given an answer like, "You mean, am I all white?" But clearly I am not such a woman, or I was caught too much off guard to be. I made some things clear with my tone, and for that I commend myself, but I should have responded directly to the reality of the situation. This has happened to a number of my friends, not in my school's neighborhood but close to Cabrini-Green, a once-sprawling and now-isolated set of housing projects set between some relatively affluent (or, in one case, very affluent) neighborhoods on Chicago's near North Side. One of the bordering neighborhoods is Wicker Park, a hipster neighborhood that most twentysomethings in the city visit for some kind of arts fix. I've had several white friends stopped by the cops in the process of walking to the Red Line train, for which walk you'd have to pass the Cabrini-Green buildings, asked if they knew where they were going and what they were about to pass (in some cases yes, in some cases no), and given a ride by said police officers. I've heard this story often enough from enough different people talking about enough different times that there must be a beat that does that and that alone--officers must honestly be assigned to keep white people away from Cabrini-Green. And a cop car that had probably just *arrested* someone--I mean, who was in the backseat?--honestly thought itself obliged (note the synesthesia, by the by; I'm aware that the car can't think) actually believed it was a priority to keep a white woman out of South Austin. What the hell *is* this place? Who the hell are these people? Where the hell do I live?

The practical conservative aspect of the argument would, of course, be that this neighborhood simply has a higher crime rate than most, is on the CPD list of the top five most dangerous wards to have your beat (so I was told by a cop who's dating an acquaintance of mine), and that a white woman, being an anomaly in the neighborhood, might simply be in greater danger. And/or, being so anomalous, it could be that she was headed here to engage in some illegal purchasing activity. On some level, it's just a police officer's job to notice what's unusual and to respond to it. Can I answer that, can I argue with it? I think it may be one of the fundamental disagreements, one of those points where you either think it's wrong or you don't. In this case, I'd say the two sides are those who take "better safe than sorry" as an absolute and those who don't. Walking into a high-crime neighborhood probably carries greater risk to your person than walking in a neighborhood that is not high-crime, although there are about sixty gazillion statistical factors to qualify that statement. Being of an anomalous race in a high-crime neighborhood may carry even more risk, though I'm not sure about that. But I can't help feeling that the driving thought is "working- to lower-class black people shouldn't be around white people, there's just something fundamentally wrong with that situation."

It's more complicated than that, too; it has to be. Racism and xenophobia are no kind of inborn instinct; they're based on anthropological conventions. I mean anthropological in both senses of the word--in terms of classical anthropology and in terms of observing ourselves as a culture with cultural conventions. Classical anthropology and anthropologists, like Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski, for the most part concerned itself/themselves with "savage" or "primitive" society; they did not acknowledge the possibility of their own bias or social training having an effect on their ostensibly objective observations. The discipline of classical anthropology, while important, is the most extreme example of the "othering" currently notorious with the left. In Time and the Other, an amazing critique of classical anthropology, Johannes Fabian argues that the real problem with "othering," with the concept of "primitive," is that implies that you, as an anthropologist, exist in a different time from those you study. The very word "primative" implies that they, the other, came first, and then with evolution and advancement gave rise to you. And if that's not the case, which obviously it isn't, then we must be able to examine ourselves with the same kind of detail and critical eye that we examine other societies. So . . . our racism stems from classical anthropology and its predecessors, and is a trait of our society rather than a necessary instinct. In our painfully individualistic society, it is possible for people raised and/or trained in similar contexts to believe in very different social truths.

I was raised one way, and those police officers were trained in another. As far as I'm concerned, the training those officers received is inimical to my opinions and values; in this day, age and region, I doubt they would say the same about mine. But who's to say.

I don't intend this to mean that I'm not somewhat racist; I can't see outside myself far enough to be so presumptuous. I think it's a fair statement that I'm much less racist (overtly or otherwise) than those police officers, but while I can pat myself on the back for that it's not exactly an accomplishment.

The day after this racial profiling (I know it didn't have anything near the practical or psychological repercussions that people who are actually members of racial minority groups experience after an incident of racial profiling, but profiling it was), which would be today, I finished John Grisham's A Time to Kill, which I'd picked up at the Evanston library book sale for fifty cents. Being a University of Chicago graduate and raised, to some degree, to be a literary snob, I have a hard time admitting to my love of thrillers and crime drama. But I'm working on it. I remembered a long-ago conversation with my father about the film, so I knew the book's basic scenario, but I didn't know the end and devoured the book, even on my schedule, in less than two days.

Grisham's a decent prose stylist, nothing more on the artistry front. He's good at crafting plot and suspense, but leaves a disappointing amount both unresolved and un-unresolved, if that makes any sense. We never learn who the KKK informant was or what motivated him, which is frustrating to me (and would never happen in Thomas Harris), and yet we are all assumed and expected to be okay with the outcome of the trial; there are no lingering questions in the prose that believe the story's not resolved. Disaster comes from racially charged cases, no question; in the end, you win, and if you won because the jury said if the races were switched every (white) one would do what the (black) defendent had done, you are right. And because he won, the lawyer is happy. And the prosecutor, who condemns vigilante justice, is a jerk. There's a couple of other people who condemn vigilante justice, but they've kind of dropped out by the end of the book. I mean, you kind of get the sense that Grisham allowed this verdict in one sense simply because he didn't *want* to write about Rodney-King-style riots in Mississippi, and another sense that we must believe vigilante, revenge-style justice really is okay.

Which last is, in many ways, another form-content debate. I react viscerally to vigilante justice, of course, because who the hell wouldn't, but I feel like the content doesn't acknowledge the form. This is going a little bit down the everything-including-society-is-an-art road, but I think that's the road I live on. I sympathize with Grisham's Carl Lee Hailey, though he ain't our protagonist, and never having been to Mississippi, certainly not in the late '80s, I pretty much have to take as truth everything Grisham tells me about the social conditions there. If a white man would not even have been indicted for viciously murdering two black men who raped and viciously beat his ten-year-old daughter, I'm prepared to believe that the same courts shouldn't indict a black man for viciously murdering two white men who raped and viciously beat his ten-year-old daughter. But I'm not prepared to believe that the lack of indictment is right in either case.

And I *know* that by nature I'm one of those weird, slick, uncomprehending Northerners the book is always jabbing at. I know that an eye for an eye's an important and prevalent philosophy in a lot of places,

I guess maybe the point of the ending of Grisham's 1989 novel was to give us some hope. In a book written and set in the late '80s, an all-white jury voted to acquit a black man who killed, in a premeditated fashion, the white rapists of his daughter. His lawyer was white; his lawyer's weird, disbarred, alcoholic mentor was white and a card-carrying member of the NAACP. Maybe there's hope for the world yet, quoth Grisham.

And obviously I believe there's hope for the world. I would be entirely useless if I didn't. But the more Jonathan Kozol one reads, the harder it becomes to believe our society can be both salvagable and ethical.

This is the third-and-a-half Kozol book I've read (before this I read Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, and parts of Ordinary Resurrections). He's written I think twelve of them, all on the same general themes: he's a white, Jewish '60s radical and former teacher intent on exposing racial injustice. He does it well, and even on the occasions where he doesn't (he lapses into the maudlin, the manipulative), he's an *incredibly* important writer and observer, somebody who really achieves the synthesis of directness and honesty. The Shame of the Nation is the best book I've read so far--it's about facts, it's about action, while still acknowledging that personal stories are a part of what requires action. In a lot of his other works there are pleas for sympathy, appeals to pathos that don't really work out, but it isn't what he's doing here. Kozol's sentimental to some degree, as I think anyone who works with or thinks about children has to be, but he's taking on inevitable facts about the racial divide in American schooling, down to calling it an apartheid system. Maybe that's not a fact per se--the existence of a black middle class would have been impossible under South African apartheid--but the vicious divisions in public schools are clear enough, and the inequalities in the distribution of resources cannot be denied with a straight face. But that, too, goes back to anthropology: there's no excuse for what's going on, and other than the assumption of limited capacities there's not even an explanation. The assumption of limited capacities is exactly what Fabian attacks in his work, that people who aren't us are behind us somehow. I think that can happen a lot when you're working with people, kids in particular, who come from less money than you do. And while there's some fairness to it, it leads to a lot of weirdness when I or my teaching partner or guests to our class assume that our kids couldn't access the internet at home, haven't been exposed to certain ideas, etcetera. We assume they're behind the curve, we assume they don't know what we know because they don't have access to ways of forming the knowledge. And with technology that *can* be true, and yet and yet. Where does one draw the line between that and Kozol's Hispanic students who have the grades for honors but are tracked into sewing and vocational classes because the school isn't equipped to do otherwise, assumes its students will all enter the service industry?

I think in the end Grisham's approach is just dishonest, as overweening idealism can sometimes be. I'm going to write a longer post on Kozol soon, so I'm not going into too much detail now, but we shall not overcome with one major fictional criminal trial on the subject of vigilante justice alone.

And now our Mr. Bush is attacking Southern Illinois University for having fellowships that are available only to female and/or minority students. This from a president who has done for minority students what Reagan did for the homeless and the mentally ill, not to mention the HIV+.


I don't think I've said anything cogent about racism in this post, aside from the fact that it's always more present and more insidious than we think it is. I don't quite have the energy to tie everything together as I usually do in posts like this; it's just threads about where we are on racial judgements. Look for more on Kozol as soon as I can breathe again.


At 6:27 AM, Blogger meridity said...

My sister used to be in all areas of the city at all times of the day and night as a result of her hospice duties. Her late night presence in certain areas was met with suspicion by our men in blue on several occasions, and her explanation of her duties was not always convincing.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger chloegoth said...

What I wonder is would they pull over for a black woman in the same situation (alone, in a rough neighborhood)? Also, was he stopping to talk to you because he was worried about what might happen to you, or because his superiors might question him if something were to happen to you on his beat?

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I'm entirely certain they would not do the same for a black woman in such a neighborhood, because I was standing near several black women. Presumably, if it's black people who cause the crimes, which must be the cops' assumptions, then black people can fend for themselves. And I think the concern was purely practical: a white woman in a black neighborhood must either be there to commit a crime (buying drugs) or be about to become the victim of a crime. Both of which would make more work for the police.

I see no non-cynical way to view this incident.


Post a Comment

<< Home