I came late to Kevin Williamson’s controversial blog-post in National Review online, “Where the sidewalk ends: Danger and despair in Pat Quinn’s Crumbling Illinois.”
From the top, here are the guts of it:
East St. Louis, Ill. — ‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka!White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?” It’s not the last challenge like this I’ll get here where the sidewalk ends, or the most serious one.
I get yelled at by a racially aggrieved tyke with more carefully coiffed hair than your average Miss America contestant.
Jonathan Chait believes this is a racist rant. David Weigel has more doubts.
— daveweigel (@daveweigel) August 13, 2014
At a minimum, this piece is insouciantly tone-deaf to some basic proprieties….
In 2014 America, does one really have to say that you shouldn’t deploy primate metaphors to describe a nine-year-old black boy, that it’s needlessly disparaging to describe that child as “a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dog,” that snide comments about the coiffed-ness of a child’s hair are best avoided, particularly if that child belongs to a different cultural or ethnic group from your own? Given the National Review’s checkered history on several racial matters, its writers and editors might be a tad more careful with such material.
More than the bad imagery, what most disturbs me about this column is the lack of context and the utter psychological distance between the writer and the people he is ostensibly depicts. Who is this boy? Who is the woman with him? How and where did Williamson happen to meet them? Did he make any effort to engage these two human beings that would allow more than the cardboard portrait he provides?
His column is ostensibly concerned with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s (whom Williamson calls “America’s Worst Governor™“) uphill reelection fight:
If you seek a monument to Governor Pat Quinn, take a good long whiff of the despair and decay around here. If his political career is indeed euthanized this November, they should bury its rotting carcass right here in East St. Louis…. If this is the Land of Lincoln, then Pat Quinn is the gubernatorial John Wilkes Booth.
This is pretty strange, too.
East St. Louis has long been notorious as one of the poorest, most dangerous municipalities in America. Whatever Governor Quinn has done poorly or well, he can hardly be blamed for the city’s many-decade history of agonizing problems. Its current unemployment rate–while horrible at 13%–is 1.6 percentage-points below what it was when Quinn took office.
If Quinn did make policy mistakes regarding East St. Louis, you wouldn’t learn about them in Williamson’s piece, which is entirely consumed with one colorful but oddly un-illuminating anecdote. Indeed Williamson has managed to experience more weird, scary, rather implausible encounters with black people than I’ve accumulated in many years of public health work in poor African-American communities.
In East Saint Louis, as in earlier sojourns to the Chicago southland, Williamson is the disdainful stranger. He parachutes in. He has fleeting, superficial encounters with random strangers who personify pejorative, politically-incorrect stereotypes about the pathology of lower-class urban life. In East Saint Louis, as anyplace else, people have real stories to tell. You have to engage them to hear them. You have to want to hear these stories, too.