The disparaging stranger: Kevin Williamson visits East Saint Louis

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.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “The disparaging stranger: Kevin Williamson visits East Saint Louis”

  1. Assuming that a NR blogger wishes to "…want to hear these stories…" But that seems unlikely. Snark, not engagement, seems to be the currency.

  2. I don't know East St. Louis and I never bother to read the National Review. So I won't bother with the specifics.

    I have to say though that your criticism of this type of … well, we can't call it journalism, right? It isn't, is it? I guess at best you could say it is commentary of a flimsy and unfair sort — is important. Since this is exactly what one expects at most "blogs," perhaps the real question should be, is this blog worthy of notice? Is it worthy of discussion? I have no interest in the question per se, but it is something that anyone with a megaphone, such as yourself, might want to ask.

    Of course, that raises the question of, how do we know which of the random nutcases who always seem to be with us is going to turn out to have real power, such that he should be resisted immediately? I guess it is a public service, but it is a shame that people like this get to waste so much of everyone else's time. I guess because we let them?

    Finally, I refuse to use Twitter as a way to discuss important topics. Stop already. It is for traffic jams and the weather. And maybe, surprise free concerts. It is useful and limited.

    1. It wasn't a blog post. It was a featured article for the "print" edition, presumably fact-checked and edited.

      And, since the NR and the NRO are hugely influential institutions on the Right, the random silliness of one of their feature writers is relatively important

  3. I am reminded of Victorian Londoners being taken on poverty tours in the East End, where they gawked at those they considered their lessers.

    1. Or late 20th century (and, one assumes early 21st as well) europeans going on bus tours of northern manhattan.

  4. I find it very hard to believe Williamson's account. In fact, I refuse to believe it because a self-reported incident like this is impossible to verify. I'd say exactly the same thing if a black store clerk claimed, without witnesses or any context, that Williamson used an ethnic slur or behaved in a hostile manner. (Even with witnesses, I'd be skeptical, but I'd try to keep an open mind.) I'm a lawyer, so maybe that's part of it – no judge on earth would allow testimony like that to prove that someone treated Williamson badly – but if I were an editor, I would never let something like that into print unless I had some way to verify the incident happened the way Williamson said it did. It's just too damn easy to make it up or exaggerate, and too damn hard to determine what, if anything, actually happened.

    Plus, I'm 58 years old. I've been around black folks most of my adult life. (For most of my non-adult life, Dallas was segregated, and I didn't have very many encounters with African-Americans.) I've never, ever, had an encounter like the one Williamson describes. It's inconceivable that a black fellow student or co-worker or acquaintance or attendee at a social event would say something like that. And it seems incredible that random African-American strangers I encounter going about my daily life – shopping for groceries or whatever, going to church or the ballgame, to lunch or dinner, or just walking down the street, would pop off like that, even a 9 year old boy. Like I said, no one ever has.

    Finally, even if the incident happened, what are we supposed to take from that? That one kid is crazy with hatred of whites? So what? I'm sure some are, just as I'm sure there are some horribly racist white folks out there (and all kinds of other bad people.) Is this kid supposed to be representative? I don't think he is. Ever since Obama was elected and some white folks have been pushing the idea that blacks are dangerous (see, Derbyshire's version of "the Talk," among others, including Williamson's claptrap), lazy, white-haters, I've been noticing African-Americans a lot more than I used to. They're everywhere I go, and of course, the people who go the places I go are a lot like me; we shop in the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, live in the same neighborhoods, attend church together, etc., etc. The adults teach their children to respect others and act civilized in public, just as my parents did. Maybe it's different in East St. Louis, or parts of it, but ESL is hardly representative of America, or even black America, to the extent there is such a thing.

    1. Yeah, I'm with you. I can't prove that Williamson made it up, but the story simply doesn't ring true. Like you, I live in a city with a significant African-American population and based on where I live/work and how I commute, I would have had ample opportunity for such an encounter. Nothing of the sort has ever happened to me. It seems awfully convenient that this happened to Williamson on a relatively brief visit to East St. Louis. Also, with his "the Republicans are and have always been the civil rights party" article, Williamson showed himself to be profoundly intellectually dishonest, so it's not too much of a leap to imagine that he would embellish or fabricate an anecdote that can't be verified or disproven. Finally, I can't claim to be an expert on the sort of slang that an 8 year-old East St. Louisan would use…but "white devil"? That strikes me as a term that was lurking in Williamson's memory after reading the Autobiography of Malcom X.

    2. "there are some horribly racist white folks out there "

      And, many of them subscribe to the National Review and some of them have written for it.

      Also,

      " I'd say exactly the same thing if a black store clerk claimed, without witnesses or any context, that Williamson used an ethnic slur or behaved in a hostile manner."

      Perhaps, if you knew his record of assaulting strangers? http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/348453/theat

      He is a tool

    3. I agree that we should be very sceptical about Williamson's claim. But if the kid did treat him as an enemy, he was merely being perceptive. Allies of Williamson succeeded in denying Medicaid to millions of people like him and his mother in other states, against the intent of ACA. Another ally, Avik Roy, proposes to replace their Medicaid coverage, if they have it, by an exchange policy "with an average deductible of approximately $7,000 per individual per year, or $14,000 per family per year". Suppose they are better off and not on Medicaid? Other allies of Williamson have brought a lawsuit, exploiting a drafting error in ACA, to cut all the federal subsidies on individual policies bought in other states through healthgov. Other allies are zealously trying to deprive his parents of their voting rights by bad-faith voter ID laws. It goes on. Democrats are inconstant and often ineffective champions of African Americans like him. Republicans are always against them.

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