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Must crack the code to talk about race

Randy Blaser - Pioneer Press Bureau Chief

(Sized for Column Stet - 12.5 picas x 6 picas)
Randy Blaser

Just too much baggage.

I’ve tried to avoid talking about or commenting on the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, who shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in what a jury has ruled was an act of self-defense, because of all the stuff piled onto the case.

The courtroom, where the facts of an alleged crime are debated and weighed, is not the appropriate place to discuss the state of race relations in America in 2013. In reviewing the case with a cold eye of a reporter, it is clear that the jury got the verdict right.

But as a person who has lived with the racial tensions inherent in one of America’s most segregated communities, I also know the trial did not result in justice for Martin’s death. I’m afraid none will be available.

However, if we are to have a national dialogue in the aftermath of the trial, there are two issues white people need to acknowledge and talk about.

One is the irrational fear many whites have of black people. It exists on many levels and is played out daily. Look at where we live now, where we used to live, and the racial make-up of Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs.

For most white people, when they talk about the city’s neighborhoods, they talk about white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods. We even use code words to describe the neighborhoods in between as “changing neighborhoods.” I’m sure you’ve seen that phrase in the papers or even used it yourself. The next time you do, ask yourself: “Changing into what?” And ask, “What does that change mean?” For whites, changing neighborhood means blacks moving in and whites fleeing.

But that’s not all, is it? What are the other connotations of that simple phrase? Lowered property values? Fear? Increased crime?

Another phrase I hate, and even banned from the pages of Pioneer Press when I edited those papers, is “inner city.” That’s white code for poor, high-crime black neighborhood. But it quickly becomes a catch-all phrase for just black neighborhood.

Chicago’s neighborhoods have names, and as an editor I always demanded my reporters use those neighborhood names and not use “inner city.”

The second issue is profiling. President Obama touched on it in his speech in the aftermath of the trial. It can be as simple as locking your car door when a black man walks by, or as overt as calling the cops because a black man is in the neighborhood.

As a young reporter covering the police beat in Chicago’s suburbs, I jokingly called those reports, which were more numerous than I care to remember, black man walking.

Easy for me to joke about and sneer at the obviously racist whites, but enraging to live with, don’t you think?

When does irrational fear turn into profiling turn into calling police that leads to a confrontation that ends in tragedy for everyone involved?

At times it was tough because when white people talk, they think “inner city” is a polite way to say what they mean. If you mean black, poor, crime, dangerous, etc., maybe you should stop using that term.

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