Friday, August 31, 2007

Craig’s a Liar from the ‘Hood’ Too

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Minneapolis airport police Sgt. Dave Karsnia has taken some heat for maybe being a little too zealous in putting the collar on so many guys that get their sexual kicks off with other men in public restrooms at the Minneapolis airport. But most say he is a diligent, upstanding, young cop that does his duty as he sees it. So it’s curious that Karsnia lectured Idaho Senator Larry Craig about lying and added that that’s what he’d expect from the guy we get out of the ‘hood.’ Now Karsnia is confronting a respected, GOP Senator on his lewd act, and his lame defense of it, but why did the comparison of Craig to the guy from the ‘hood’ so easily roll out of his mouth. It didn’t seem to fit. Or did it?

From what’s on the tape, Craig didn’t dispute the characterization. And in the tortuous public gyrations he’s gone through to try and explain what he did or didn’t do in the men’s bathroom, he made no reference to the reprimand. But way should he? There’s absolutely no way that Craig would ever compare himself to a guy from the hood. But could he be? The answer is yes and no. Legions of white men, and that includes wealthy, prominent, high positioned white men, have been indicted and jailed for lying to judges, grand juries, congressional committees, FBI and Justice Department investigators. Over the years, the white men that run government agencies from the White House to the FBI have been repeatedly caught in lie after lie to cover-up their misdeeds or blatant criminal wrongdoing. So it’s no stretch to compare men such as Craig to the guy from the ‘hood.’

The problem with that and here’s the no part, the comparison insults the mythical guy from the ‘hood. But he is very real to Karsnia because he fits in snugly public beliefs, or to be more precise, stereotypes about the ‘hood.’ The stereotype fits even more snugly when it’s jammed next to negative public perceptions and fears of black crime. When some young blacks turned to gangs, guns and drugs, and terrorized their communities, much of the press titillated the public with endless features on the crime-prone, crack-plagued, blood-stained streets of the ghetto.
TV action news crews and cop pseudo reality shows have turned that stereotype into a major growth industry, stalking black neighborhoods and filming busts for nightly news. The explosion of gangster rap and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films have convinced many Americans that the thug lifestyle was the black lifestyle. They have ghastly visions of the guy from the ‘hood’ heading for their neighborhoods next.

This racially disfigured view of blacks as inherent crooks and liars doesn’t change even when the actual crime figures don’t square with that perception. A few years ago researchers at the University of Wisconsin actually compared white views of neighborhood crime with actual figures from police reports and victimization surveys in three cities - Chicago, Baltimore and Seattle. They found huge a gap between public perception of the crime threat and the reality of it. The perceived severity of the crime problem fluctuated with the number of young African-American men nearby - more so than with any other neighborhood factor, including the actual crime rate.

The skewed perception of crime and blacks has also deeply colored how judges and juries perceive and decide criminal cases when the defendant is as Karsnia put it a guy from the ‘hood.’ A 2003 Penn State University study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.

The prevailing notion of who’s a crook and a liar and who isn’t has also spilled over into the job market. In 2005 Researchers at Princeton University surveyed nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City. They found that black men with no criminal records were no more likely to find work than white men with criminal records. In another study of employer attitudes toward minority hiring, some employers didn’t even try too hide the reason they were reluctant or refused to hire the guy from the ‘hood.’ They flatly described blacks as "unskilled," "uneducated," "illiterate." "dishonest," "lacked initiative," "unmotivated," "involved with gangs and drugs," "did not understand work," "unstable," "lacked charm," "had no family values," and were "poor role models."

The last reason they gave for slamming the employment door on blacks was especially apt in relation to Karsnia’s reprimand of Craig. He was righteously offended that a senator could so abuse his name and reputation by stooping to commit a petty criminal act in a men’s restroom. That immediately disqualified him as any kind of fit model for decency. In that instant whether Karsnia knew it or not, and could admit it or not, Craig was the fictional guy from the ‘hood.’

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.