Yesterday morning I was reading the news at stltoday.com when a crazy headline caught my eye: “St. Louis County man charged in apparent racially motivated pickax attack“. Unable to resist the absurdity of such a thing, I clicked the link and began to read.
My first impression upon reading the article and seeing the suspect’s mugshot was that this guy most likely had some white supremacist connections, and that in all likelihood, he was high on meth. I mean, seriously, this guy is two years younger than I am and he looks like he’s about 55. And I thought $100,00 bail was generous: If I were the judge in this case, I would have held him with no bail. He’s obviously unstable and dangerous, and probably needs help with his drug problem.
Crazy story, but a pretty straightforward one, right? I thought so. Then I clicked on the comments.
I should have known. I should have been prepared. The tendencies that an anonymous internet discussion forum bring out in even the mildest of personalities are terrifying. But I think I’ve been shielding myself from the political undercurrent in this country, mostly because it’s so irrational and unreasonable, so I was caught by surprise. Ten years ago, with the exception of a handful of crazies, the comments would have ranged from (justified) outrage from the black community to something like my reaction: this idiot doesn’t represent the mainstream, so let’s lock him up and move on.
What I read instead were a large number of comments complaining about how this lunatic got a huge bail while a 17-year-old in a mostly black community got a small bail on the same charges. The difference, of course, was that the young black man was defending himself from a drive-by shooting, while the pickaxe/pickup truck attack was apparently unprovoked. Plus the poster got it wrong anyway–$50,000 is still a lot of money. At least to me. But that was the theme of the majority of the comments: that we get so mad about racism by whites against other races, but that we let it slide or justify it when the other races give it back.
The uncomfortable part of the conversation is that these arguments are valid on a lot of levels. One white poster commented that they had gotten lost in a bad neighborhood in North St. Louis and were threatened and the recipient of racial epithets simply because they were the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. And that happens. There is a lot of anger in the poor black community, but that’s always been there, and I understand why. The difference today is that in our crumbling economy, a lot of previously middle class whites are finding themselves joining in the ranks of the poor, so now they’re angry, too. And as a result, racial tensions are escalating.
It doesn’t help the situation that the collapse of our financial structure coincides with the first term of our first black president. Who also happens to have relatively (please note the emphasis) socialist (i.e., “nanny-state”) tendencies. And a “socialist” politician is going to have a perceived bias toward the poor community, which in this country, and many others for that matter, is made up of a considerably high percentage of African-Americans. This has lead to the reactionary rise to prominence of extreme conservatism, flag-shipped by the Tea Party movement, and a lot of angry political rhetoric.
This angry political rhetoric has led to an “us-vs.-them” kind of mentality. The lines are inevitably drawn along socio-economic lines, which all too often coincide directly with racial lines. And a suppressed racism that stayed under the surface within the white middle class while things were going well has once again reared its head. I worked in construction during the good times, and in my community, a large slice of the middle class was made up of union tradesman. I witnessed first hand the whispered remnants of racism and sexism that were existed but were kept quiet while the work was there. But now the work is gone and all of those tradesman are angry about it, and don’t have anything else to do to keep them occupied, so the underlying racism is bound to come out, especially in an anonymous setting.
To kind of wrap this up, a couple of thoughts: I do believe we have a double standard of what constitutes racism in this country, and it needs to be addressed. But I don’t believe the solution is to level the balance by increasing the weight on the light side. We need to bring it down on the heavy side. And also, let’s not choose an unhinged, pickaxe-wielding maniac as the mascot for any kind of movement. That doesn’t help anyone.