New Internationalist

blade Politics

Issue 187

new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988

Switch-blade politics
The 'mean season' is on. As the quality of American life drops groups of whites
are taking it out on black people, gays, Jews and immigrants. Richard Kazis
examines the violent white backlash in the US today.

Three black men trying to start their stalled automobile were chased through the streets of the Howard Beach neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York and severely beaten by a group of whites. When one of the black men, 23 year-old Michael Griffith, ran onto the highway to escape his pursuers, he was struck by an oncoming car and killed.

The case came to trial in September 1987 and that month racially motivated violence in New York City hit a peak. A young Italian-American college student led a group of white youths who attacked several blacks with baseball bats in Brooklyn. By the end of September, the number of racial assaults in New York City had already climbed above the level for all of 1986.

New York City may be extreme but it is certainly not unique. And while black-white clashes in the US have increased so too have incidents of anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and attacks on Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Although the vast majority of incidents are spontaneous and isolated, there are signs that racially-motivated violence is becoming part of a small white subculture. In a number of states, including California, Florida and Illinois, teenage members of white supremist skinhead groups have been charged with hate crimes ranging from the murder of a homeless black man to the terrorizing of a black teacher with the threat of lynching and the demand that she pay a 'nigger tax' to walk the streets. In Washington DC, skinhead attacks against homosexual men have increased sharply since 1986.

An angry backlash has taken shape - a confused but explosive reaction to life in America today. In living rooms and private parties it takes the form of a resurgence of racist and homophobic stereotypes and jokes. In the workplace it takes the form of resistance to increased employment opportunities for minorities. On the streets it is violence.

Why? First, many Americans are afraid that the quality of their lives is deteriorating and their opportunities for the future are contracting; in addition, an ideological war has been waged since the mid-1970s that has both reinforced and contributed to the dynamics of' what some authors have called this 'mean season'.

With economic insecurity on the rise and signals coming from the highest levels of authority encouraging intolerance it is not surprising to see frustration boil over into violence. Nor is it surprising to see that violence targeted at the least powerful groups in society.

One indicator of the quality of life is the crime rate - and the level of fear of criminal violence. Ironically, fear of crime is one of the forces that unites the socially diverse American people. Americans share the sense that it is only a matter of time before they or someone they love is victim of a violent crime. One out of every two Americans living in large cities and four in ten across the nation are afraid to leave their homes alone at night, according to public opinion polls.

Unfortunately, this fear of personal violence is justified. It is more dangerous to live in America than in any other industrial nation. Americans are roughly seven to ten times more likely to be murdered than residents of most European countries. As crimes against person and property have escalated, Americans have had to alter and restrict their daily routines and habits. They can no longer leave doors unlocked, walk at night in neighborhoods that were once safe, let down their guard in public.

The result has been mounting anger and frustration. And in recent years this rage has become focused on the social group that is statistically responsible for a proportionally greater share of crime - young, poor black men.

Cities and neighborhoods with large concentrations of poor people tend to have high crime rates. In Compton, California, and East St. Louis, Illinois - both cities with extremely high crime rates - between 25 and 40 per cent of the residents have incomes below the poverty line.

Given the inextricable link between poverty and race in the United States, it is not surprising that these cities also have large black populations - over 75 per cent in each city. For most white Americans however, the question of whether race or poverty correlates more closely with crime is academic: it is easier to identify somebody's skin color than the size of their bank account. It is easier simply to assume that blacks as a group are dangerous - particularly when the unknown always seems dangerous and when whites have historically feared blacks.

The extent of this hostility to young blacks became impossible to ignore in 1984 when a white mid-level technical worker named Bernhard Goetz drew a revolver on a New York subway car and shot four black youths who had asked him for five dollars. More than half those polled soon after the shooting approved of Goetz' action, even though the youths were armed only with a screwdriver and Goetz shot one of them in the back, running away. One in four polled said they would have done the same thing given the opportunity.

Crime is only one manifestation of a declining quality of life. Restricted economic opportunity is another. Between 1973 and 1986, real income stagnated in the United States. Income inequality increased; the proportion of low wage earners rose and the proportion of middle-income wage earners declined for the first time since the Great Depression.

Just as the increased fear of crime has aggravated the hostility toward blacks - or more accurately, has given a veneer of legitimacy to pre-existing prejudice and racism - the growing sense that economic opportunity is more restricted has contributed to an upsurge in resentment and anger. It is not uncommon to hear white Americans complain that the welfare state has given blacks too much. Affirmative action in hiring, designed to reverse generations of discrimination, has been seen as a threat to the employment hopes of qualified whites. Quotas in admissions to universities and professional schools have generated similar conflict.

Rightly or wrongly, less affluent white Americans have interpreted government policies of the 1960s and 1970s as biased in favour of minorities. In a period when their own prospects appear more limited, when the pie is no longer growing rapidly, it appears that minority gains can only come at their expense. White resentment is felt in the courts and legislatures, in the nation's workplaces, on the street and in Goetz's case in the subways.

While conditions have certainly changed for the worse for large segments of the American population it would be a mistake to think that public opinion and action is based solely on objective conditions. While violent crime rates have soared, one is still more likely to die from a slip in the shower than to be murdered by a stranger.

The intensity of the backlash cannot be explained by statistics alone but must be understood in the context of ideological changes in the social climate.

Conservatives have been trying to roll back the expansion of welfare. This effort has been central to the Reagan administration's domestic program. We have seen a chipping away at the rights of union and non-union workers, a shrinkage of welfare grants for the poor, cutbacks in nutritional programs for the poor and an erosion of protection for the disabled and the unemployed. We have also seen an attack on the rights of the accused and a general effort to 'get tough on crime' and on criminals.

The conservative justification for this is that the programs of the 1960s not only did not reduce poverty or crime but actually made America's social programs worse. On the one hand, liberal social programs had negative economic effects: the weakening of market discipline through government intervention in the labor market contributed to economic stagnation. On the other hand, the welfare state had costly social impacts: by creating a class of people who were dependent upon the state, these programs contributed to the unraveling of the social fabric. It was time for the state to withdraw.

The political advantages of this argument have been pointed out by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. By discussing welfare policy in terms of the moral breakdown of American society, conservatives were able to take the debate over the welfare state out of the economic sphere - where Americans have more liberal views - and place it among the social issues, on which Americans tend to be more conservative. Homosexuality, abortion, welfarism, and 'judicial permissiveness' toward criminals could be linked together.

Liberal policy-making had been guided by an optimistic view of human nature and of social responsibility derived from the Enlightenment. Human nature was essentially good. Crime and other anti-social behaviour was seen as a social problem. Better social policy could therefore restore the support networks that would reduce crime and integrate the marginal elements of society into the broad social fabric. As a Presidential Commission put it in the mid-1960s: Warring on poverty and inadequate housing' was 'warring on crime.'

Liberals saw individuals as relatively malleable. They could change. As a result, liberals argued for rehabilitation of offenders and assistance for those in poverty. An ethic of social responsibility underlay the policies - even if the programs in the 1960s and 1970s were under-funded and misdirected.

The conservative counter-attack, which has dominated social discourse in the 1980s, is based on a very different view of the world. People are by nature selfish and aggressive. Individuals develop a propensity to crime or to conformity to law and custom early, from their genetic inheritance and their early family experience. Consequently, effective political control and not wise social policy is needed. Rehabilitation is rejected and incarceration is seen as useful for protecting those members of society who follow the rules, not for aiding those who do not.

To reduce crime, it is necessary to increase the costs of crime. Thus, conservative social policy advocates increased policing of citizens and heavier sentencing of criminals. Many see vigilantism and the fear of it as effectively increasing the cost of crime. If a subway robber thinks his victim might open fire, he might revise his cost/benefit calculation.

In its most basic formulation, conservative ideology is based on both the Hobbesian view of society as a war of all against all to be contained by political order and the Lockean belief in a minimal role for government beyond protection of individual life, liberty and property. In the hands of the New Right and leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher, this has been turned into a cynical form of Social Darwinism that not only leaves the less powerful to their own devices, but creates a climate that condones and even rationalizes the transformation of legitimate frustration and fear into ridicule, dehumanization and, inevitably, violence against the disenfranchised and the powerless.

One hundred years ago, a French sociologist wrote that 'a society gets the criminals it deserves.' It is no less true today.

Richard Kazis is a writer and researcher based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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