Danger! Your Suburban Bubble is Under Attack!
This morning on Good Morning America, I was greeted with a disturbing story on a “gang” murder in suburbia, but I was less disturbed by the details of the death, which are sad, but more disturbed by the way it was reported. GMA went through great lengths to paint a portrait of perfect suburbia being impinged upon by a deadly gang force. Without using the words, the story signaled and screamed race. The practice of not talking about race explicitly but talking about race is common, but particularly dangerous in this case. The loss of Chris Jones’ life is one matter, but the underhanded sentencing of the lives of the boys who are alleged to have committed the crime is another.
The segment opens trying to draw viewers in by introducing the silent danger in suburbs … gangs!
“We have an interesting story for you. Many of us believe that gang violence is old news, you know about it, it’s in the inner cities, it’s about drugs. That’s not true, that’s not accurate, there’s a whole world of violence out there that puts kids in suburbs at risk. We want to tell you of this one mother in Maryland who did everything she could to protect her child from bullies, turned out they were gang members. And just a block from their home her son met a fate that even his mother had never imagined …”
Voice overs to the story give you information like townhouses in the area cost “350,000 dollars” and that Chris was an “all American boy” who loved things like baseball, hockey, and wanted to be a police officer. The way the story is framed and unpacks it is meant to scream whiteness, suburban safety, and crisis. Chris’ death is discussed and eventually the “suspects” are splashed across the screen, they are Black youth. While the story doesn’t discuss it, the boys alleged in the attack attended the same school and presumably lived in the same community as Chris. The reality is that suburban Crofton, Maryland is like many areas, it is not all White and likely has not dealt well with the incorporation of non-Whites (in this case Black) into its community. While suburbia is painted as perfect, the reality is that suburbs are engineered spaces that have been used to “escape” some urban hazards and buffer their residents from the social world around them. Regardless of Crofton’s public image and its besmirchment, I am most disturbed that the reporting of Chris Jones’ murder serves exacerbate racial tensions; rather than open for spaces of dialogue.
A couple months back, the Atlantic published an article entitled “American Murder Mystery” about Memphis, Tennessee that discussed the issue of crime. The piece, which features the research of Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts who “crack” the mystery of American murder by uncomfortably suggesting residents who relocated from public housing to scattered site and mixed-income housing travelled to new areas and carried their “old ways” of violence and gangs. Recently, I sat in a GIS mapping workshop where approximately 1/3 of the participants were law enforcement agents from suburban areas who were interested in using mapping to find “crime hot spots” so they could more “effectively” patrol neighborhoods and groups. It reminded me of the sad reality that a little bit of social science knowledge can be a dangerous thing, particularly for those who are unjustly and unnecessarily targeted.
The overtone in GMA piece and the Atlantic piece suggest that neighborhoods that are “well off” will soon be over-run by dark violent, inner-city forces. Rather than open a dialogue about communities and responsibly dealing with difference, they feed into racial paranoia. Rather than explore the ways that policy can mitigate some of the tensions between communities, we receive more fodder for race conflict carried out using non-racial language but overt racial signals. Rather than look seriously at the lives of all people in suburban communities, both Black and White, right and poor, we get conviction on young Black boys in the public eye. Don’t believe me, read the comments on the piece.
I am no journalist, but I think I that the implications of pieces like these are huge. America is arguably more on “racial alert” now than it has been in the past. The arrival of an African American president has not been without impact in both positive and negative ways. We need to be informed about what is happening in the nation, but we also must be critical consumers. Having lived through the Central Park Five case and recognizing the railroading that young Black men have historically received in the American Judicial system, I cannot help but wonder, what was the goal of the piece: information or inflammation?