by R. Tyson Smith
Last August, the editor of this paper, Pete Mazzaccaro, wrote a column apologizing for the omission of the race of an alleged perpetrator in a crime report. In this column he stated, “It’s true that Chestnut Hill crime reports show that most crime here is committed by young black men … It would certainly be wrong to omit or censor descriptive details about criminals in our neighborhood.”
Mazzaccaro’s assertion, however, ignores the fact that on a routine basis the race of the suspect is left out of the Chestnut Hill Local’s crime report descriptions. At the time of this writing (3/7/13), there are countless examples in which the race of the suspect was clearly known (or could have been known), yet the suspect’s race was reported only when black.
The implication is that when crime occurs in Chestnut Hill, the perpetrator is black. What’s worse, this has been routine for many years. If you doubt this, tally the instances (prior to 3/7/13) in which the suspect’s race is stated when white. It is almost zero, whereas “black” is usually pointed out several times a month. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this omission of “white” has persisted de facto for the history of the Chestnut Hill Local’s crime report.
I don’t know the racial composition of crime suspects in Chestnut Hill, but I am certain that some proportion of the perpetrators are white. It may be true that the majority of suspects are black – as Mazzaccaro states unequivocally – because of Chestnut Hill’s proximity to low income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black and living within staggering conditions of poverty. But there is no way that all suspects are black, as the Local implies through its ongoing omission of white race.
Curiously, Mazzaccaro’s apology was prompted by readers who felt that the Local was in error – or being “politically correct,” as he surmised – in their omission of racial identifiers after the Delphine robbery. Apparently these same vigilant readers failed to notice that, yes, race has been regularly omitted – but only when it is “white.” This makes one wonder why these readers noticed only the omission of “black.”
Beyond supporting harmful racial stereotypes of blacks as criminal and therefore less moral, the Chestnut Hill Local’s reporting discrepancies perpetuates a pernicious corollary – whites (and other racial groups) are not these things. Thus the Local reinforces harmful cultural associations between race and behavior in their unscrupulous reporting. This pattern is cause for concern in and of itself, but it is all the more problematic in a neighborhood that is as racially segregated as Chestnut Hill. Lower rates of interaction with people of other races is more likely to lead to problematic stereotypes of other groups.
The Local may state that its report has come straight from crime blotter reports delivered by police, but this is still not excusable. Many neighborhood papers do not report such accounts verbatim; moreover, is it not the editor’s job to judge and correct reporting errors?
I suspect that few, if any, Chestnut Hill residents would call themselves racist and most have some interest in advancing racial equality. Despite being almost entirely white and highly segregated, the community prides itself on having so many well-educated professionals, many – if not most – of whom voted for the first African-American president (87 percent of the 19118 community voted for Obama in 2008, for example).
Having said that, routine messages like those found in the Local’s crime report matter. I would suggest that when the race of a suspect is identifiable – a clear perspective with accurate description – either omit the suspect’s race altogether or state it every time. If details on the suspect are fuzzy, omit the race altogether. This appears to be the standard for many newspapers’ crime reports.
Furthermore, while a disproportionate percentage of crime in Chestnut Hill may be committed by young black men, both readers and editors should be mindful of what gets “reported.” Crime measurement is a phenomenon subject to a variety of social influences; many crimes go unreported all of the time, regardless of their impact.
In addition, people with higher socioeconomic status have far more resources to keep their indiscretions private. As any Chestnut Hill resident who’s paying attention knows, even though DUI’s, drug-dealing, vandalism, and stealing by whites frequently occurs, they very rarely make the crime report. (Of course, even if they had, the whiteness of the perpetrator would likely have been omitted.)
“White collar” offenders might be more likely to resemble a Chestnut Hill profile, but they are no less “criminal” than those who commit “street crimes.” One of the biggest recent crimes in the community, after all, was the million-dollar fraud by a former owner of Caruso’s market. This act, like most crimes, was nonviolent and economically based. But unlike the stolen credit cards, wallets, and toiletries that are regularly reported in the Local, it was a huge amount of money. (The criminal was white.)
Reckless lending practices and fiduciary irresponsibility that causes depositors to lose millions – another local example from the 90s – harms countless numbers of people. If the Local’s going to continue to list the credit cards, deodorants, and navigation devices that get swiped from local residents and businesses, surely the “white collar” crimes should be listed as well. If and when they are, race should either be omitted altogether or always listed.
As it stands, the Chestnut Hill Local’s “crime report” represents a pernicious form of institutionalized racism. If we want to correct the everyday injustice and instances of racism, the ongoing practice exhibited in the Local should be changed immediately.
R. Tyson Smith is a sociologist at Brown University who does research on gender and health. He used to live in the Chestnut Hill area and still receives the Local thanks to the generosity of his mother-in-law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org