My dad sent me a link to this
article, which made me reflect on some of my own experiences.
I've been told by people who have been to Harlem and Detroit that they found those places to be uncomfortable, especially late at night. These people were invariably white, middle class people.
Invariably, I get asked by people who haven't been to Harlem whether it was scary living there. Those people are also invariably white, middle class people.
No, I reply. It's actually scarier living in Ann Arbor. I usually get blank stares at that point.
Many white people are afraid of black people. Even liberal, well-educated white people. It's what I call liberal racism. To these people, it is more frightening to be on a street with many black people at 11:00 pm than to be in a white suburban empty street at 2:30 am. Why? Because white people are afraid of black people. Why? Because they perceive black people as being more violent than white people. Why? Because they fail to understand how violent crimes usually work. And they've been brought up to be afraid of black people.
OK - I'll give them this - I don't think I would have been happy running around Harlem in the 1970s. There was a lot of genuine hostility at the time - it was the days of race riots, urban decay, and real interracial hatred, on both sides. And their parents probably instilled in them their own fear of black people, even if they were proponents of liberal, non-racist viewpoints.
But here's the thing with crimes today - most violent crimes don't occur when there are a decent number of random people walking down the same street. Violent crimes happen in deserted areas, back alleys - not in places with many potential witnesses. Also, many of the murders in urban areas are gang-related. Unless you are a gang member or get caught in the crossfire, you're probably OK.
I really mean it when I say that I'm more frightened in Ann Arbor than in Harlem. I live on a quiet, tree-lined street, with poor street-lighting. When I walk home from the bar at 1 or 2 in the morning, I'm walking alone, without anyone around to help me should I get assaulted.
Moreover, look at serial killers. Most scary predator types who repeatedly assault and murder people are white. Black crimes tend to be more crimes of passion. The BTK guy didn't live in Harlem - he lived in the middle of a quiet suburb in Kansas.
In all honesty, when I first moved to DC, I had some of that liberal racism in me. I was wary of black men walking down the street at night. And I recognized that this was irrational. Very quickly, I also recognized that I was in no danger. Living in an "up and coming" neighborhood, on the border between yuppy and ghetto, I was exposed to more black people than I ever had been before on a daily basis (growing up in Europe and Japan - there weren't a whole lot of black people around). And soon it became a community, just like any other.
My experience in Harlem was marked by an awareness that there was a much greater sense of community there than elsewhere in Manhattan. I could see myself being stabbed and bleeding to death in the Village while people gingerly stepped by me. I couldn't see that happening in Harlem. People look out for each other, talk to each other, and offer random acts of kindness to strangers, irrespective of race. Whether it was the little old lady who helped me carry my laundry to the laundromat, or the offers of help from strangers that a friend of mine's pregnant wife kept experiencing, people in Harlem were just nicer, friendlier and more open than in the rest of Manhattan.
Racism exists inside most people, whether they know it or not. Sometimes it's manifested in subconscious fear, not of a location, but of the color of its inhabitants, which is then translated into a fear of location. Would these people feel so uncomfortable if all the other people on the street were white? I highly doubt it. It's not about the poverty of an area so much as about the color of the people.
Personally, I find myself manifesting a new form of racism. I'm scared of mullet-wearing, Nascar-watching, pickup-truck driving white men. They're the ones who get loud and angry in bars, look to pick fights with liberals, disrespect anyone who isn't a beer-swilling white guy, drive like maniacs on the highways, and won't leave you alone in bars. They're the ones that I feel most targeted by, and who cause me to cross the street when they're walking towards me. Not the black men in Harlem.