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In Defense of Michael Bloomberg's Mindset on Race and Urban Crime

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Michael Bloomberg has been catching a lot of flack for the search-and-frisk policy he enforced as mayor of New York and comments he's made about it since. (In a 2015 audio, he is heard saying that the vast majority of murders fit one M.O: "You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops" They are male minorities, 16 to 25. That's true in New York. That's true in virtually every city... that's where the real crime is.")

I'd like to offer a defense of Bloomberg not for racist arguments he made, but for the context in which he made them. (I'm not a Bloomberg supporter, nor supporter of any specific Democratic candidate.) Bloomberg is a big-city boy (he grew up in the Boston area), and for many who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, it was nearly impossible to avoid highly charged attitudes about the role of race in urban blight and crime.

Where I grew up, on the South Side of Chicago, white flight was in full force during the 1960s. My neighborhood of South Shore saw some two-thirds of its 65,000 white residents head for the exits of the suburbs or the city's North Side rather than live with the large numbers of blacks streaming into the city from the South in the so-called Second Great Migration. With all the racial tumult came crime--white-on-black crime and black-on-white crime. As I discovered in researching my new historical novel (Gouster Girl), the racial tensions of that era were all-pervasive and unrelenting.

The fact that many of today's white liberals don't like to acknowledge the black-on-white crime, in particular, that grew out of the tensions doesn't mean it didn't happen, and that it didn't leave emotional scars on all involved. I was frequently bullied and shaken down by bigger black kids for cash on my way to and from the integrated high school I attended. The bullies made it clear in their threats that they targeted me because I was white.

Michelle Obama describes similar signs of racial tumult and fear in her best-selling memoir that came out last year, Becoming. She grew up in the same South Shore neighborhood of Chicago as I did, in the 1970s, and recalls: "Every September when Craig (her brother) and I showed up at Bryn Mawr Elementary, we'd find fewer white kids on the playground. Some had transferred to a nearby Catholic school, but many had left the neighborhood altogether. At first it felt as if just the white families were leaving, but then that changed, too. It soon seemed that anyone who had the means to go was now going."

In other words, white families were joined by middle-class black families, all fleeing in fear of crime from poorer blacks. The fear of crime wasn't an empty fear: At least some of the poor black kids became members of the Blackstone Rangers and Devils Disciples, street gangs that metastasized into many splinter gangs and still wreak havoc in South Shore and other South Side Chicago neighborhoods.

Similar scenarios of whites and middle-class blacks fleeing in fear took place in other major northern cities from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Boston and New York. It was the fear of black-on-white crime that eventually led to the tough-on-crime enforcement crackdowns nationally--crackdowns that went overboard in locking up poor blacks, in particular.

However, the fact that the enforcement went overboard doesn't mean there wasn't a spike in violent crime during the 1970s and 1980s and that it was all over the racial map--white-on-black, black-on-white, black-on-black, and white-on-white. It shouldn't mean that in the recent efforts to reform our criminal-justice system we lay all the blame on abusive cops or overzealous pols, and refuse to acknowledge the racial fears that overlay public attitudes of the times.

Bloomberg's co-campaign chair, Michael Tubbs, who is mayor of Stockton, CA, and black, recently sought to put unflattering Bloomberg comments from the 2015 tape about stop-and-frisk into context:

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David E. Gumpert is author of "Gouster Girl," a historical novel about white flight in 1960s Chicago, told through the eyes of a white teenager involved in an interracial romance. He is co-author of "Inge: A Girl's Journey Through Nazi Europe," (more...)

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