Friday, September 4, 2009

Chauncey DeVega says: A Mugging On Lake Street or Let's Talk Honestly About Ignt's, Black on White Violence, and Liberal (or Not) Guilt

Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates for this one. I was a victim of an attempted robbery at gunpoint (by a young black ign't) and am thus a bit too close to this story to offer a traditional essay.

Consequently, I have more questions than answers and will share accordingly.

I must applaud John Conroy's honesty in sharing the complex mix of feelings he experienced in the aftermath of his attack by a group of black hoodlums. For the uninitiated, Conroy is a local Chicago journalist who is good people and has worked diligently to highlight injustices wherever he has found them. In total, Conroy is a sincere defender of the "powerless" and the "disadvantaged"--how ironic then, when a member of said group viciously attacks him.

In reading "A Mugging on Lake Street" I must ask: what happens when you are one of the good guys (in this case a self-avowed, white progressive) and you are betrayed by those folks who you are invested in helping? Do you give up the fight? Should you? Or is this betrayal a litmus test for how deep one's commitment to a cause really is?

For example, if a person is invested in rehabilitating pitbulls, and one of those poor abused souls does not return the generosity of your deeds--except for a sudden and painful much just rewards for your hard work--are you a fool for continuing with that cause? How do we reconcile the moment of praxis that occurs when theory meets practice?

Did these ign'ts attack Conroy because he was white? Or did they attack him because he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Are these predators so utterly unreflective, and controlled by their base impulses, that to assign any amount of premeditation to their deeds functions as an ironic, backhanded "complement"--one which they are not worthy of receiving?

When you hear about instances such as Conroy's attack, does your mind wander to the inevitable question, "what if a group of white kids had attacked a local black journalist? Wouldn't there be protests?" More generally, what of our common humanity? I bring hell down on white folks when they don't stand up for justice, and I try to bring the same rain down upon black and brown folk as well: Where were/are Sharpton et al. when hate crimes are committed against White people?

Or is this is a story of power, where "the powerful" i.e. White people, have enough advocates already? Thus, those who speak for the "weak" cannot and must not divert their attention from that cause? Or is the reluctance on the part of the media, public intellectuals, and activists to turn a bright light on hate crimes against whites a function of how these violent incidents are often taken as a cause de celebre by White Nationalists and other hate mongers, and thus there exists a natural aversion to giving said groups any additional ammunition?

Finally, what is more disturbing? "Larry's" behavior? Or that of the "responsible" adults around him? Is it not at all surprising that so many young black men end up in prison as much because of poor choices, as because of how those around them act as enablers? What is the over/under on how long until this young ign't, piece of human debris ends up in prison? I say 2 years, 5 on the outside. What is your bet?

Am I too callous, when after reading these stories I shake my head and say incidents such as these aren't about race at all? That instead these happenings are more precisely a commentary on the thin dividing line which separates the civilized and the savage--and that Conroy is actually lucky because if he were black those young ign'ts might have just as soon killed him?

Some choice excerpts:

I was willing to believe that this was just an example of the inexplicable teenage mind at work. Carolyn Frazier, a Northwestern law professor who often represents juveniles facing criminal charges, told me recently that her clients sometimes use the phrase “going on dummy” to describe doing something stupid, something bad, offering “a big ‘fuck you’ to society. . . . It’s that whole frontal cortex issue: They are just incredibly impulsive; they are not thinking about the higher consequences.” Of course, not every kid behaves that way, so there’s obviously more at work. “It’s peer pressure; it’s what you see in your neighborhood, what values you are being raised with; it’s all sorts of things.” Maybe, she said, “you got dummied.”

“Some people are just thugs,” an African American friend of mine said. And I thought there might be something to that. I just had the bad luck to run into one—they come in all colors—and perhaps mine was an equal opportunity thug. Maybe if I’d been black, I’d have hit the same piece of pavement.


Larry sat still for all of this, his eyes downcast. Aaronson asked him to reply. “Wasn’t no motive,” he said quietly, his voice hardly carrying to Aaronson’s end of the table. “Nothin’ like that.” He was hesitant, didn’t seem to be able to look at me directly, and there was no trace of cockiness or street toughness. “We was playing basketball at school, and then we got off the train, and one of the guys said, ‘Let’s do somethin’.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like beat up somebody.’ Thirty seconds later you came riding by on your bike.”

Larry maintained that he wasn’t the guy who’d hit me. He said that he hadn’t objected to the plan, and that afterward he had just run away with the others. “Seeing the way it happened, I had no feeling. Didn’t know what to feel.” The whole thing had nothing to do with race, he said. “If it was any other person in that state of mind we was in as a group, it would have happened to anyone. . . . Really wasn’t no reason. Just kids doing kids.”

“Why didn’t you steal anything?” I asked.

Wasn’t part of the plan.”


I left feeling somewhat whole. During the session, Larry had yawned, stretched, and cleaned his fingernails with a pen, but he’d also said he regretted being part of the incident. I thought he had learned something. When his mother had asked him how he’d feel in my shoes, he’d said, “I’d be filled with hate.” I’d asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to play in the NBA,” he said. I later learned that in his two years of high school he’d passed a total of one class. Clearly I was better off, even unemployed, than he was or might ever be.


I called seven more times, trying at hours when I thought I might catch Larry but not his aunt, but had no success. Finally, I called on Memorial Day. Larry’s aunt answered and said her husband wanted to talk to me. “I don’t see what it is that you want to know,” he said. “You got mugged, he got in trouble. So what is it that you want to know?”

“I’d just like to know what is behind it, what happened that day.”

“So, what you writing—a book, a movie, or what?”

“No, I’m just trying to write a magazine article. I’m not using—”

He interrupted before I could explain I wasn’t going to use Larry’s name. “Oh, you just writing a magazine article? That means you gonna get paid.”

“That’s right.”

“So is he gonna get paid?”


“Okay, then he ain’t gonna do the interview. I am his uncle, and that’s the end of that. Thank you. Have a nice day.” He hung up.


AndreaM said...

The fruit does not fall far from the tree. And unfortunately the "strange Fruit" that Ms. Holiday sang about is not what menaces us today. Low expectations, no strategic or critical thinking...I feel like crying sometimes for the lack of HOPE in our people. There is no value assigned to anything that is not immediate or material. Delayed gratification is not even contemplated. It's frustrating and maddening & saddening all at once. I'm rambling...But the randomness of this behavior just baffles and terrifies me.

Clarity said...

I almost stopped reading when you compared a mugging by young black men with whom the journalist had no relationship, to a pitbull trainer's relationship with her or his trainees. Come on. Y'all are better than that. At least, before this post, I thought you were.

The fact that you can, in one sentence, say that you don't think this is about race, and then go on in the next sentence to suggest that this is about "the civilized and the savage" simply shows that you know nothing about race, since the entire modern idea of race has had in some way to do with the right to represent the behavior of some people civilized, and the behavior of others as savage.

If this journalist had been attacked by a group of poor white folks, not only would there not be a story here, but y'all certainly wouldn't be crediting him for being "honest" or a "good guy." Nor, I suspect, would you be so quick to reduce the perpetrators to "predators...controlled by their base impulses."

Finally, how is this a hate crime? Nothing in your account gives any inkling that the attackers were motivated by hate.

I suspect that this post isn't about ignorance, or a mugging, or guilt, as much as it is about responding to the discomfort that you, and other black folks of relative privilege feel when with other black people of relatively less privilege, schooling, and opportunity behave in ways that make you feel implicated. I think that it calls, in your case, for more self-reflection, not jumping to judgment or projecting your shame onto others by calling them "savage." If I didn't know y'all were black, I could easily confuse this with something a racist white person wrote.

You probably won't post this, but I hope you'll consider it.

chaunceydevega said...

I will take ownership over this one. Yes, it is intentionally provocative. And hopefully, it will start a conversation about class, behavior, and crime. It is also honest. I think black folk of all stripes wear a mask where we hide our true feelings about these issues. As Gordon often talks about, it is the classic private/public talk divide. At times, I really don't want to play that game.

I find it fascinating that "we"--especially black "progressives" often protect the worst and the most degenerate--I understand the historical antecedents for this (was it DuBois or Douglass who pointed out after seeing the injustice of White authority why negroes often protect the worst amongst them).

But, my test here is a simple one: would you want to live next to, in the same neighborhood with, or share public space with these miscreants in the name of "racial uplift?" I suspect lots of folks talk the talk when it is convenient, but they would not want these ign'ts in their neighborhood.

Why doesn't the pit bull/hoodlum analogy hold? This reporter, a self avowed progressive and some would say a classic guilty white liberal--as demonstrated by his "struggle" to make sense of his victimization by these hoodlums--got beat down by one of those he would advocate for in the abstract.

The reporter even has a moment where he feels bad that this young thug will not have a life half as good as he does. I am sorry, but I do not have that much mercy or generosity in my heart. Dude made a choice to attack an innocent person, and he should go to jail. Period. He isn't a "victim." He has agency and should be held accountable for his choices.

So where do we begin with this conversation? And should we hold back on our public talk for fear that white conservatives and racial reactionaries may use it for their own purposes? Should we give them that much power?

Chauncey DeVega

gordon gartrelle said...

It was DuBois, Chauncey.

If this journalist had been attacked by a group of poor white folks, not only would there not be a story here, but y'all certainly wouldn't be crediting him for being "honest" or a "good guy." Nor, I suspect, would you be so quick to reduce the perpetrators to "predators...controlled by their base impulses."

Clarity, you clearly don't know Chauncey. His disdain for violent troglodytes knows no color.

Those who have no regard for human life, those who feel no remorse for brutalizing others are savages. Isn't that the very definition?

And why should their blackness temper our disgust? How sympathetic are you to the poor whites who beat people of color?

The notion that this savage behavior is a natural response to relative lack of privilege is built on a soft liberal cultural white supremacy. It suggests that poor black people don't have the capacity to uphold basic norms of human decency.

Clarity said...

I don't know where to start, possibly because I have the sense--though I might be wrong about this--that there's a great deal of projection involved in both of your responses here.

The problem with white supremacy isn't simply that it oppresses persons of color; it's that the terms of that supremacy creep into the ways that we approach responding to incidents like this. Perhaps you miss the irony, Gordon, in tacitly accuse my critique of "a soft liberal cultural white supremacy" while you freely throw around a term like "savage," which has been a staple in white supremacist vocabulary for describing people of color for a good half a millennium now.

I actually didn't say anything about violence being a "natural" response to a lack of privilege, so who knows where you're getting that. I'm not comfortable explaining the behavior about someone whose life I am not familiar with. Both of you, however, seem perfectly happy to rush not only to judgment but to sweeping condemnation and sentencing when all you know about this is filtered entirely through the eyes of the victim. How much information do you need before you call someone an "ign't"? Not only do you make no distinction ignorant behavior and ignorant person, but moreover, you make the essentially baseless claim that this is a "hate crime," even as that question is given a far more thoughtful treatment in the article you cite.

Chauncey, if you don't see that a pitbull trainer, who develops a close relationship with the dogs she or he trains, is a much different relationship than that white reporter who develops an empathetic relationship with a human community, I don't know where to start. Pitbulls know who their trainers are. The attacker(s) didn't know who this guy was. The only thing that holds your analogy together is the implicit association of violent black people with brute animals, incapable of reflection. Again, you conflate the act with the person.

Both of you seem to imply that I'm making excuses, which I categorically am not. What I am doing, however, is putting the spotlight not on the crime itself but on your representation of it, which is, in my opinion, rivals the crime you describe in its hasty and unself-critical orientation.

I'm not the one extrapolating that someone lacks the ability to "uphold basic norms of human decency" from my knowledge of one violent act. Y'all are talking like you know something fundamental and deep-seeded about this kid.

Negroes, please. This bourgie black-on-black racism is so Clarence Thomas.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

Powerful words--the spirit of which I appreciate. Projection, I think not, as I at least don't see any of my own faults or behaviors in this young miscreant, nor am I writing for fear of what White folks may think of "us"--look at some of my previous posts and you will see that is not my modus operandi.

I think that I know enough about this young man to make the claim that he is an ign't--and I could say worse things but I was being moderate in my condemnation--he was a party to an attack on an innocent person, a particularly violent attack that was done out of sport and for fun. That is all that I need to know--punish him to the fullest extent of the law so that he is safely removed from society. I don't particularly care for a sob story about a lack of social capital, dad not being in the house, youthful wanderlust, the prison industrial complex, or some socio-anthropological musings about young black men, criminality, and identity construction. Dude is a thug, let him reap the benefits of his choices.

We can disagree on the punishment or on the severity of it, but I must ask: why the desire to defend the worst of our "community?" And why not more condemnation on him, his family, and the cadre around this ign't that encourages such behavior? Should not this young man be held to the highest of standards as opposed to the lowest?

I know this may be passe in some circles, but I still believe that we have to be better...

I know it is hard to hear the tone of one's voice via email, but I mean this sincerely, Clarity you certainly have much to say on this topic and are well reasoned and sound in your argumentation (even as much as we may disagree). If you would like to write a guest post on this issue--or one related, however tangentially--by all means please email it to me/us and I will most certainly post it.


chauncey devega