Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Racial Profiling

with 4 comments

So here we are again, at my local news, because over the week-end we had something of a story.

Around about Sunday, a couple of hikers came across a vehicle obviously abandoned on the side of a popular hiking trail. 

What’s more, the vehicle stank to high heaven, and the stink was–well, the hikers thought it was distinctive.

Not being idiots, and having a sinking feeling that the stench was, um, not something they wanted to get involved with, the hikers called the cops.

The cops came, and what was in the vehicle turned out to be a corpse, wrapped in garbage bags and stuffed inside a duffel bag.

The basic story is here


and if you look at it, you’ll note the news about the case that arrived yesterday:

The police have arrested three people “in connection” to it.

If you’re a mystery writer, you’re probably sitting there going:  so what?

Bodies left in abandoned cars, bodies stuffed into suitcases, bodies left dangling from English pub signs– a body in a duffel bag isn’t even all that inventive. 

True story or not,  it’s hard to know why we should be interested.

Well, what I’m interested in is not as clear in the link I posted as it has been in some of the stories that have come out since.  Those stories had pictures, and matching the pictures with the names, what you find is this.

The three people arrested in connection with this murder are a black man, a Latino man, and a white woman.

It’s like some sappy UNICEF poster gone horribly wrong.

And that makes me think of something else, which is that my life is much more thoroughly segregated now than it was in 1968, or even well before the Civil Rights Movement got into serious gear.

When I was in grade school, my little town–and it was VERY little–had at least two black families whose children attended our schools.  I was best friends with one of them in second grade.  One of the others introduced me to the music of James Brown a few years later.

This may sound like a little black drop in the bucket, but the ratios were not bad for a town whose high school graduating class reached an all time (until then) high of 80 whole people in 1964.

The percentages in our  high school weren’t as good, but the president of my senior class was a black woman, she certainly wasn’t the only black woman there.

(There were no men.  It was a girls’ school.)

These days, my guess is that the only reason I see black people at all is that I teach. 

If there are black people living anywhere in the town where I am  now, I have never seen them.  You can go down to Main Street any day you want, shop in the grocery store, buy stamps at the post office, wander in and out of the little shops, and never see a single African American face.

This is not the same thing as saying that the town is monochromatically white.   It’s not.  We have significant numbers of people of Asian descent, mostly Chinese, but some Thai and Vietnamese and Korean.  We have a growing number of people from India and Pakistan. 

We just don’t have any African Americans.  And the very few Latinos we have are what the press claimed George Zimmerman was, but he wasn’t–they are “white Hispanics.”  Meaning that if you saw them on the street, or even talked to them, you wouldn’t know they were Latino at all unless they gave you their last names.

This situation is even odder than it seems, because we live very close to a small city that is heavily black and Latino–heavily enough so that two of the high schools there are almost exclusively black and Latino.

There  has been so  little spillover, there might as well have been nothing at all.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, outside the major cities, most white Americans have no direct contact with black Americans at all, or at least none beyond the level of getting their fast food from a black counter server.

In this town, you wouldn’t get even that much contact.  The crews at the local McDonald’s and Burger King are solidly working class w hite, with an occasional “white Hispanic” thrown in.

By now I’m sure a number of you are nodding your  heads vigorously and gearing up to tell me that, yes, America is a virulently racist country and that you’ve been trying to tell me that for a long time.

But I don’t think that’s the answer here, or at least I don’t think that that’s the answer here as that answer is usually  meant.

I know a fair number of the real estate people in this town, and I know that if you ask them, they’ll tell you that in all the time they’ve been working, they’ve had very few or even no African American clients show up at the door.

It’s not that anybody has refused to sell to African Americans.  It’s that nobody has had any African Americans to sell to.

In other words, the self segregation is at least as strong among African Americans in this area as it is among whites, and it may be stronger.

And the result is that a lot of white American now live in a country where black people just don’t exist at all.

Or, worse, exist only on news broadcasts and then almost always only if they’ve been arrested for doing something wrong.

And that’s an interesting issue in and of itself, because the only black people on my television set when I was growing up were Civil Rights leaders and marchers.

If black people were committing crimes in those days, I didn’t know about it, because the local news usually didn’t report on it. 

What “those people” did was considered to be  not very i nteresting to the rest of us, and therefore not really  necessary to report.

Changing that situation, getting the local news across the country to report on African American “concerns,” was one of the big goals of the Civil Rights movement, and I sometimes wonder if the law of unintended consequences didn’t go completely haywire in that case.

In the 1950s, there were formal barriers to integration, and sometimes informal ones, and a near media blackout on the doings of one particular race,  but we lived together and we saw each other face to face, and we judged each other on the basis of what we knew of each other face to face.

Now the formal barriers are gone, and most of the informal barriers are gone, and the nighly news sometimes seems to consist of nothing but reports on what black people do, all of them bad.

And we don’t know each other face to face, so we make up our  minds on the only things we know–

Except in one place.

In the worst of the small-time petty crime pits of our dying industrial citites, integretation seems to have arrived at the place we all said we wanted it to be in 1964.

Written by janeh

July 24th, 2013 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Racial Profiling'

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  1. Maybe if something is a public issue, people are inclined to classify themselves along those lines. If the official ideal is that we are all in this together, people can focus on various reasons for choosing where to live. If the official ideal is that you feel and demonstrate a strong affinity to your linguistic or religious or racial group, people might be more inclined to use that factor in choosing where to live.

    When the importance of distinctions are emphasized, people are more inclined to sort themselves into divisions defined by those distinctions. Perhaps it doesn’t need a war where you are targeted by your neighbours to accomplish this; just a constant refrain that of course your own ‘kind’ need your support and you need theirs will do.


    24 Jul 13 at 8:54 am

  2. Oh, and my school was smaller than yours – 50-60 students per year, if my memory serves. We had no non-white students, mainly because we had no non-white residents. There were historical reasons for this The aboriginal population (on the island) was never large and mostly died out. Almost all immigrants came from the UK, and we’ve always tended over the centuries to export population, not to import it, due to periods of poverty. The city I live in now has a fairly large non-white population by our standards, almost all students, professionals, or very recent refugees. I saw one black person, a player on a visiting amateur hockey team, during my entire childhood and there’s the famous story of the rural woman who was helping wash the oil off the American sailors who survived a WWII shipwreck, and, never having seen a black person, couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get all the black off his skin.


    Different histories, different results.


    24 Jul 13 at 9:06 am

  3. Hmmm. Well, certainly not all the black men on the evening news get there by behaving badly. The President. The Attorney General, a recent Secretary of State and a recent National Security Advisor come to mind–not counting various athletes and entertainers. It is, certainly, unusual for a black man to make the evening news by running a successful business or making a scientific discovery–but then it’s hard for a white man to get on the news for these things too, which tells us something about the news.
    There does tend to be self-segregation in American housing, though. The census people tell me that to completely integrate Norwegian and Danish Americans, you’d have to move about half of each. The only study I saw on racial preferences indicated that on an average, blacks preferred a neighborhood to be about 50% black, and whites grew uncomfortable in a neighborhood much over 10% black, which tended to make integration a transition state. But averages aren’t absolutes. I knew neighborhoods in the DC suburbs which were integrated and reasonably stable, and my home neighborhood, which was lily white when I grew up, is about 5% black today.
    I’d say the trajectory of my life ran the other way, from solidly white elementary schools and an unsuccessfully integrated high school to an integrated graduate school, and from a disproportionately white Air National Guard to an Army more like the nation and a civilian profession different from either. The last time I sat down with family for a Thanksgiving dinner, there were more black faces than white.
    Which doesn’t mean there aren’t neighborhoods I regard as off-limits. And there are still fast fooderies where, as a non-Hispanic white, I have a hard time getting served.
    Progress might be faster if we knew where we wanted to go.


    24 Jul 13 at 2:24 pm

  4. I went to grad school in Pittsburgh during the 1960s. There was a neighborhood with a lot of Kosher restaurants and Kosher butchers. There were also Italian and Polish neighborhoods.

    The same thing is happening in Sydney. There are Muslim, Vietnamese, and Chinese neighborhoods.

    There appears to be a lot of truth in the old saying that Birds of a feather flock together.


    24 Jul 13 at 5:32 pm

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