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On murder, angst and race

August 15, 2012

Every so often a bit of local journalism forces me to ruminate on the moral and cultural underpinnings at work in the city; actually, Michael Corbin does this with astonishing regularity. City Paper editor Evan Serpick did the same today. Serpick writes,

Week in, week out, peo­ple are killed—seven peo­ple were mur­dered in Bal­ti­more City in the week before [Joseph “Alex” Ulrich Jr.] was killed. The sto­ries are given lit­tle cov­er­age in the local media—did you hear any­thing about those seven peo­ple killed last week? If I wasn’t edit­ing Mur­der Ink, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have. But when a white per­son is killed or is the vic­tim of a seri­ous crime, as with the hap­less tourist whose beat­ing and rob­bery were cap­tured on down­town secu­rity cam­eras ear­lier this year, it is front-page news, and the source of angst: Is our city safe? It’s hard not to trans­late the sub­text of that angst to, Is our city safe for white peo­ple? Because if the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion was con­cerned about whether or not the city was safe for black peo­ple, there would be a whole lot more vig­ils and angst.

Serpick is “some­one who has been read­ing and edit­ing the details of every mur­der that’s taken place in Bal­ti­more in the last two months” and is certain innocent people are often victims of violence–in a city where 125 of 128 murder victims are black.

I’m reminded of the murder of Stephen Pitcairn, a white Johns Hopkins University researcher and aspiring physician, who was killed in the summer of 2010, during a hotly contested state’s attorney race. The “angst” Serpick writes about likely propelled Gregg Berstein to victory that fall: the murder of a young black “innocent” male in an urban center is somehow less discomforting to the general population–perhaps it’s even expected–than that of a young white medical researcher. Skin color and class determine the prevalence of violence or safety: A murder in Sandtown-Winchester is somewhat expected while a murder in Canton shakes our foundation.

There’s much cognitive and cultural distancing at work beyond the tragedies of murder and violence: mass incarceration, community disinvestment, health disparity, to name but a few. It’s easy to dismiss what you do not see.


From → Baltimore, Politics, Race

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