Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, February 1993
Street Wise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, Elijah Anderson, University of Chicago Press, 1990, 279 pp.
Despite the official lip service that Americans pay to racial integration, most whites live far away from underclass blacks and are glad they do. However, in a multi-racial society, some whites will, inevitably, live along the racial fault lines. Even middle-class whites sometimes live close to the ghetto and share parks and sidewalks with underclass blacks. How does this change the texture of life?
Street Wise, a fascinating account of just how powerfully race affects city life, is the result of more than ten years of careful observation of how the races deal with each other. The author of this remarkable study, Professor Elijah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania, is black. He moves freely among whites but can also study an underclass world that is off limits to whites. He holds a conventional, liberal view of American race relations, but he faithfully reports what he finds, even when it contradicts that view.
Prof. Anderson never mentions the name of the city he studied, but it is probably Philadelphia. He writes mainly about a part of town, which he calls the Village, that was rediscovered by whites in the 1960s and is slowly becoming gentrified. Along with the attractions of its gracious old houses and convenience to the city center, the Village has a serious drawback that keeps gentrification in check: It borders on a black slum, which Prof. Anderson calls Northton.
In the 1950s, Northton was a well-kept, black working-class neighborhood, in which illegitimacy and welfare were thought to be deeply shameful. However, when housing in the suburbs became available to successful blacks they fled Northton and it is now home to all the underclass failings of crime, poverty, illegitimacy, welfare, and drugs. The working-class blacks who still live in Northton despise the underclass, though they do not use that term; instead, they talk about “street niggers,” “lowlifes,” and “pipers” (people who smoke crack pipes).
Welfare and Illegitimacy
The underclass thrives amidst welfare and illegitimacy. As Prof. Anderson explains, the young men of Northton take pride in fathering babies by different mothers and in doing nothing to support them. Sexual conquest and the deceit it requires are central to their lives, and the more blatantly they can exploit women the higher their status among other men. Marriage is the ultimate defeat. As Prof. Anderson writes, “If he [a young black] admits paternity and ‘does right’ by the girl, his peer group likely will label him a chump, a square, or a fool.”
The young women long for marriage but console themselves with babies, and there is much rejoicing over a new-born child no matter how desperate the mother’s circumstances. Teenage girls treat their babies like dolls, to be clothed as expensively as possible and paraded around the community. Mothers gain status if they have good-looking, light-skinned babies that other girls admire.
However, once a child is no longer a cute toddler, the mother is likely to lose interest in it and have another doll-baby to clothe and exhibit.
Consequently, as soon as they can walk, many children in Northton grow up with virtually no adult supervision.
Occasionally, if a woman can prove paternity she will sue the father for support. This is called “getting papers” on a man, or “going downtown on him” and makes sense only if the man has a real job. A man may therefore avoid work because he knows how many women would “go downtown” on him and how little would be left of his pay check.
For both men and women in Northton, a baby and the welfare income it brings are economic staples. On “mother’s day,” when the checks arrive, fathers appear and try to share the temporary wealth. As Prof. Anderson explains, “In cold economic terms a baby can be an asset . . . [W]omen receive money from welfare for having babies, and men sometimes act as prostitutes to pry the money from them.” Welfare is what fuels this vicious cycle of reckless procreation, but Prof. Anderson refrains from criticizing it.
Crack cocaine has had an appalling effect on Northton. People lie about in filth on the floors of crack houses smoking pipes and jabbing themselves with needles. Neighbors line up with television sets, stereos, food stamps, and anything else drug dealers accept in exchange for drugs. Women may wear no underwear so they can have quick sex in exchange for money or crack. These emaciated, glassy-eyed “crack whores,” are universal objects of contempt, and drug dealers take pride in having dragged them down. They joke about stuck-up girls who refused them sex in high school but who are “now doing everything in the book.”
The Color of Crime
Along with the drugs has come a huge crime wave and crime has a distinctive face. Everyone in Northton and in the Village — black and white, young and old — is afraid of young black men. They are a hostile, unpredictable element and their presence in a public place always means potential danger. Even young blacks recognize the menace. This is how one describes how he acts in the street:
I watch my back. I observe everything, look in the bushes. . . I never cross the street when I see dudes [other black men] coming . . . When you cross the street, that means you’re scared or you can’t fight. . . If someone bump into me on purpose, I keep on rollin’.
Just as Arabs did in uninhabited deserts and Medieval men-at-arms did in periods of lawlessness, young blacks have developed a set of greetings that are used to gauge hostile intent. At night, there is something like the military’s “rules of engagement,” that govern chance encounters with unknown blacks. It is important not to approach too quickly or come too close, to appear to be following someone, etc. Even the author, much as he decries “racial stereotyping,” describes the elaborate avoidance procedure he used when he found himself alone in the street at 3:00 a.m. with an unknown black.
Black women in Northton structure their lives around fear of crime. If they buy a new appliance, they do it in secret. They may then cut up the cardboard box it came in and put it out with the garbage piece by piece. This way no one will see the box and think there is something worth stealing in the house.
Other women deliberately ingratiate themselves with teen-age neighbors by baking cakes for them or giving them candy. They wear their purses under their coats and wear no jewelry. If they are approached by a group of young blacks they will pretend to know some of them, and greet them with shouts of “Have you seen your sister?” or “How’s Bea?”
Ploys like this do not work for white women, who are helpless prey. Young blacks know very well how much fear they inspire and sometimes feign an assault only to laugh uproariously when whites cower in terror. Some whites carry “mugger’s money” so they will have at least a few dollars to give up; thugs who find no money on their victims have been known to thrash them.
When it comes to street encounters between whites and blacks, explains Prof. Anderson, “blacks have the upper hand.” They know that whites will run rather than fight. Blacks have the reputation of being willing to kill a man if provoked, so they can always make a white back down. As a result, says Prof. Anderson, “the white male is not taken seriously on the streets . . .”
Because whites are weak and despised, many young blacks taunt and insult then when they meet whites in public. One generalized insult to all whites is to walk down the sidewalk with a boom box blaring loud rap music. It is a way for blacks to claim the entire area within earshot as their turf. In the Village, impotent whites submit to this humiliation whereas if anyone walks though Northton making a noise, locals are likely to beat him up and break his radio. Whites are the best targets for robbery, since a black runs little risk of resistance or injury if he assaults one. Interestingly, the only thing that changes the balance of power between black and white is a dog. Almost all blacks are reportedly afraid of dogs and give a white with a dog the right-of-way. As Prof. Anderson says:
In the working-class black subculture, ‘dogs’ does not mean ‘dogs in the house,’ but usually connotes dogs tied up outside, guarding the backyard, biting trespassers bent on trouble. . . When they [working-class blacks] see a white adult on his knees kissing a dog, the sight may turn their stomachs — one more piece of evidence attesting to the peculiarities of their white neighbors.
In both the Village and in Northton, it is taken for granted that danger and hostility are one-way streets. As a black explains to Prof. Anderson, he could take an apartment in the Village and no white would trouble him, but a white who strays into Northton on a Saturday night is clearly in danger.
Prof. Anderson points out that many Northton blacks are ashamed of the reputation they have earned among whites. Some young men who understand why whites fear them, may go out of their ways to be polite to whites during chance encounters, and even explain that they are “not like that.”
“Blaming the Victim”
Working blacks, who still believe in honesty and diligence, are more openly contemptuous and unforgiving of underclass blacks than whites are. To Prof. Anderson’s chagrin, they are perfectly willing to “blame the victim”: “[T]here are a lot o’ guys out there who just don’t wanta work . . .” says one man; “There’s a different kind of black man today.” A retired black tells him, “I’m getting like some of the white folks do. I don’t want to be bothered with some of us neither.”
Whites in the village struggle against “racism” and recount their own muggings in earnestly race-neutral terms. Nevertheless, they learn to stay off the streets not just at night but also in the afternoon when the high school lets out. They learn elaborate evasion routines to avoid walking past young blacks. They put bars on their windows and buy expensive burglar alarms. Prof. Anderson finds that the new generation of yuppies is less forgiving, less “sensitive” about race, but older whites still talk about the benefits of diversity and wonder why they do not have more black friends.
Prof. Anderson concludes his book with a homily on how crime and racial hostility will get worse unless the government spends more money, but his heart does not seem to be in it. Elsewhere, he sums up the problem in the following house-that-Jack-built manner:
The yuppie who is mugged and the [black] kid who does it; the old head [hard-working, older black man] who loses the respect of the kid, who impregnates the teenage girl, who goes on welfare, which raises taxes, which drives out local companies, which causes unemployment, which causes homelessness, which causes crime, which depresses property values and drives out middle-class residents . . .
The whole dismal cycle begins with the young black who mugs the yuppie and makes the teenager pregnant. Government wrote the welfare check that helped bring the young black into the world in the first place. Government spending will not reform him.
[Editor’s Note: This review is in A Race Against Time: Racial Heresies for the 21st Century, a collection of some of the finest essays and reviews published by American Renaissance. It is available for purchase here.]