Last week, I was walking down Central Avenue in Austin, carrying an expensive laptop computer in a satchel. Three black teenagers approached me on the sidewalk…and walked past me without doing or saying a thing.
This sort of thing isn’t happening to me all the time. A few summers ago, I was riding my bike in West Garfield Park, when I got a flat. That scenario sounds like the opening scene of an advertisement for pepper spray, or at least sturdier tires. I walked my bike a mile and a half to the Conservatory Green Line stop, through the crowds at Madison Avenue and Pulaski Road. A young man addressed me as “officer.”
In 2020, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, counting heads in Rogers Park and Evanston. North Side enumerators were offered work in difficult-to-canvass South Side neighborhoods. We were told we would be sent in pairs, for safety. I ended up going myself, to Greater Grand Crossing. I rang doorbells and recorded residents’ information on my government-issued iPhone. It was just another day’s work.
I am not sharing these unremarkable stories to boast about my urban bravado or toughness. I am the least brave, least tough person who has ever walked down 71st Street wearing a pair of Keen sneakers and an Australian bush hat. I’m 56 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 166 pounds, brown hair, hazel eyes, and as physically imposing as Woody Allen. In fact, I’ve been told more times than I want to remember that I look like Woody Allen. I am sharing these stories to make the point that the people most afraid of crime in Chicago — the people most likely to vote for tough-on-crime candidates and write letters to the editor declaring they will never again ride the L or venture onto the Magnificent Mile or eat at the ice cream parlor they loved so much as a child when it was still safe to go there — are the people least likely to experience crime in Chicago. White people. White people aren’t just safer in our wealthy, low-crime enclaves, we’re safer everywhere in the city. To research a story comparing the rise of the Loop with the decline of Englewood, I rode my bicycle around both neighborhoods, and experienced the same amount of crime in each, which was none.
In an essay for Salon, former New York City paramedic Daniel Jose Older related the story of treating a white man who was pistol-whipped during a home invasion in Brooklyn: “While film narratives of white folks in low-income neighborhoods tend to focus on how endangered they are by a gangland black or brown menace, this patient was singular in that he was literally the only victim of black on white violence I encountered in my entire 10-year career as a medic. The dominant narrative of the endangered white person barely making it out of the hood alive is, of course, a myth. No one is safer in communities of color than white folks. White privilege provides an invisible force field around them, powered by the historically grounded assurance that the state and media will prosecute any untoward event they may face.”
The numbers bear this out. Last year, according to the website Hey Jackass!, 567 Blacks were murdered in Chicago, compared to 35 whites. That means the Black murder rate was 70 per 100,000, while the white murder rate was 4.
Several years ago, I published an essay in the Washington Post titled “I never worry I’ll be shot in Chicago. After all, I’m white.” I described the experience of living amidst a gang war on Howard Street, between Loyalty Over Cash and the Insane Cutthroat Gangsters, two factions of the Gangster Disciples, but not worrying about my safety, because I was a civilian in their conflict.
“Walking through a high-crime neighborhood without fear of being shot is the ultimate white privilege,” I wrote. “Belonging to a conquering culture provides a free pass on another race’s turf, an immunity from the violence that afflicts oppressed communities. Howard Street is the main drag of a neighborhood nicknamed the Juneway Jungle, or simply ‘the Jungle,’ but I’ve never been hassled there, even at 1 in the morning. I look so square that no one even tries to sell me weed.”
(White privilege is not a guarantee of getting rich or owning a summer house in Michigan or being named CEO. Its power is more negative than positive. It spares whites the hassles that burden other ethnic groups: racial profiling, police stops, ethnic slurs, gang targeting.)
“I think Caucasians who walk down this street are pretty brave,” a Howard Street sneaker store owner told me.
“I think the Black people are brave,” I responded. “They’re the ones who get shot.”
A lot of white readers didn’t buy it. White victimization is essential to the conservative mindset, to the justification of starving minority communities of resources. If those people are violent, irredeemable criminals, goes the thinking, what’s the point of spending tax money on social programs to make them less violent? We should spend money on police and guns to protect ourselves from their criminal impulses. On freerepublic.com, a right-wing message board, posters called me “delusional,” “a liar,” “a chump,” “dumb,” “a decoy or a vigilante” who (they hoped) would eventually get his brains blown out.
“Now, let’s see him try that in some *real* ‘hoods…like North Lawndale, Englewood, Garfield Park, Auburn-Gresham, or Roseland,” one wrote. “Been through all of those in the daytime—sometimes on foot—and it’s always a case of ‘do business—preferably before 3 pm—and GTFO.’”
(On the other hand, a Black reader tweeted his agreement: “Y’all hood pass good. Ask bruhs.”)
Since then, I have been to North Lawndale, Englewood, Garfield Park, Auburn-Gresham, and Roseland. I am trying to write a story about every community area in Chicago, since people always say Chicago magazine’s interests end at Roosevelt Road and Western Avenue. If you live in one of those neighborhoods, you may have noticed me wandering along Pulaski Road or 63rd Street or South Michigan Avenue, wielding a pen and a tiny notebook, with only the fact that I am a mundane-looking white man to protect me. Or maybe you didn’t notice me. No one ever seems to.