by R. Tyson Smith

Last August, the editor of this paper, Pete Mazzaccaro, wrote a column apologizing for the omission of the race of an alleged perpetrator in a crime report. In this column he stated, “It’s true that Chestnut Hill crime reports show that most crime here is committed by young black men … It would certainly be wrong to omit or censor descriptive details about criminals in our neighborhood.”

Mazzaccaro’s assertion, however, ignores the fact that on a routine basis the race of the suspect is left out of the Chestnut Hill Local’s crime report descriptions. At the time of this writing (3/7/13), there are countless examples in which the race of the suspect was clearly known (or could have been known), yet the suspect’s race was reported only when black.

The implication is that when crime occurs in Chestnut Hill, the perpetrator is black. What’s worse, this has been routine for many years. If you doubt this, tally the instances (prior to 3/7/13) in which the suspect’s race is stated when white. It is almost zero, whereas “black” is usually pointed out several times a month. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this omission of “white” has persisted de facto for the history of the Chestnut Hill Local’s crime report.

I don’t know the racial composition of crime suspects in Chestnut Hill, but I am certain that some proportion of the perpetrators are white. It may be true that the majority of suspects are black – as Mazzaccaro states unequivocally – because of Chestnut Hill’s proximity to low income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black and living within staggering conditions of poverty. But there is no way that all suspects are black, as the Local implies through its ongoing omission of white race.

Curiously, Mazzaccaro’s apology was prompted by readers who felt that the Local was in error – or being “politically correct,” as he surmised – in their omission of racial identifiers after the Delphine robbery. Apparently these same vigilant readers failed to notice that, yes, race has been regularly omitted – but only when it is “white.” This makes one wonder why these readers noticed only the omission of “black.”

Beyond supporting harmful racial stereotypes of blacks as criminal and therefore less moral, the Chestnut Hill Local’s reporting discrepancies perpetuates a pernicious corollary – whites (and other racial groups) are not these things. Thus the Local reinforces harmful cultural associations between race and behavior in their unscrupulous reporting. This pattern is cause for concern in and of itself, but it is all the more problematic in a neighborhood that is as racially segregated as Chestnut Hill. Lower rates of interaction with people of other races is more likely to lead to problematic stereotypes of other groups.

The Local may state that its report has come straight from crime blotter reports delivered by police, but this is still not excusable. Many neighborhood papers do not report such accounts verbatim; moreover, is it not the editor’s job to judge and correct reporting errors?

I suspect that few, if any, Chestnut Hill residents would call themselves racist and most have some interest in advancing racial equality. Despite being almost entirely white and highly segregated, the community prides itself on having so many well-educated professionals, many – if not most – of whom voted for the first African-American president (87 percent of the 19118 community voted for Obama in 2008, for example).

Having said that, routine messages like those found in the Local’s crime report matter. I would suggest that when the race of a suspect is identifiable – a clear perspective with accurate description – either omit the suspect’s race altogether or state it every time. If details on the suspect are fuzzy, omit the race altogether. This appears to be the standard for many newspapers’ crime reports.

Furthermore, while a disproportionate percentage of crime in Chestnut Hill may be committed by young black men, both readers and editors should be mindful of what gets “reported.” Crime measurement is a phenomenon subject to a variety of social influences; many crimes go unreported all of the time, regardless of their impact.

In addition, people with higher socioeconomic status have far more resources to keep their indiscretions private. As any Chestnut Hill resident who’s paying attention knows, even though DUI’s, drug-dealing, vandalism, and stealing by whites frequently occurs, they very rarely make the crime report. (Of course, even if they had, the whiteness of the perpetrator would likely have been omitted.)

“White collar” offenders might be more likely to resemble a Chestnut Hill profile, but they are no less “criminal” than those who commit “street crimes.” One of the biggest recent crimes in the community, after all, was the million-dollar fraud by a former owner of Caruso’s market. This act, like most crimes, was nonviolent and economically based. But unlike the stolen credit cards, wallets, and toiletries that are regularly reported in the Local, it was a huge amount of money. (The criminal was white.)

Reckless lending practices and fiduciary irresponsibility that causes depositors to lose millions – another local example from the 90s – harms countless numbers of people. If the Local’s going to continue to list the credit cards, deodorants, and navigation devices that get swiped from local residents and businesses, surely the “white collar” crimes should be listed as well. If and when they are, race should either be omitted altogether or always listed.

As it stands, the Chestnut Hill Local’s “crime report” represents a pernicious form of institutionalized racism. If we want to correct the everyday injustice and instances of racism, the ongoing practice exhibited in the Local should be changed immediately.

R. Tyson Smith is a sociologist at Brown University who does research on gender and health. He used to live in the Chestnut Hill area and still receives the Local thanks to the generosity of his mother-in-law. He can be reached at tyson321@gmail.com

  • dweller

    The only thing of a “pernicious” nature is the inbred-progressive-excuse-machine that absurdly binds morality to income, and attempts to compare high-dollar, low-physical-risk “white collar” crime with aggravated assaults, armed robbery, smash & grabs, vehicle break-ins, or cell phone snatches.

    Embezzlement & fraud, no matter the dollar amount, is seldom accompanied by physical peril, rarely causes one to fear for their life, and usually occurs over a period of time; so equating violent & non-violent criminal activity is specious.

    Toward clarification, I’d suggest we ask the professor which of these two circumstances he’d prefer:

    1) He’s been Tasered in the head, and his assailant has taken his wallet and iPhone5.
    or
    2) He’s invested the check from his recent Gender & Health TED Talk in a pyramid scheme.

    Even Brown professors aren’t liberal-unto-death, are they?

    • megan_r

      @dweller: All true.
      Why do I have to check my brain at the door, or be called a racist?
      Reporting the race of a thief or robber could be helpful in apprehending him and providing an alert to other possible victims.
      Reporting the race of a real estate fraudster would just be stupid. I’m more concerned with avoiding a stickup than a bad investment. I’ll take my chances with how I spend my money, and I don’t care what the fraudster looks like. I DO want a description of anyone who’s been tasering people and getting away with it.
      I know that all black people aren’t criminal and all white people aren’t above crime, and I’ll make my own conclusion about what to watch out for from all the information I can get. I don’t need this guy to call me a racist for it, though.

      • Brotherly love

        more threatened by a petty thief stealing from the drug store than a financial criminal who wipes out your savings? That’s funny

        • phillyred

          That wasn’t her argument or conclusion, brotherly love, and the dismissive and reductionistic nature of your comment makes it worthless. Petty thievery is never a good thing, nor is financial criminality; both of which might be avoided with adequate information about the perps. Physical descriptions would be of more use in combating one than another, but it’s doubtful you could ever admit that.

  • Mr. Obvious

    The vast majority of crime is nonviolent

    • pht1

      The vast number of *laws* are about non-violent crimes.

  • CH resident

    Typical apologism/relativism, which frankly is getting very old. So according to the Professor, the police blotter in one of the most liberal papers from one of Philly’s most liberal neighborhoods is racist because it simply confirms that most crime in CH (and pretty much all violent crime) is committed by Blacks? We’ve officially entered the Twilight Zone.

  • C. Thomas Howell

    Never trust or belive anyone who has an inital for a first name or needs their mother-in-law to pay thier bills.

  • mary lee keane

    What’s wrong with the suggestion of just stating the race for everyone or for no one? I believe that Mr. Smith was making every effort to be non confrontational. Wish i could say the same for Mr. Aleo and for most of the commentators below. i agree that sometimes racism is called when no racism was intended. I also think that many white people who live in primarily white neighborhoods would just naturally only mention race when talking about a nonwhite person, just as those black people who live primarily in black neighborhoods would be inclined only to mention race when talking about a white person.