Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Strangers We Know

As sociologists of urban American have powerfully documented, our inner city neighborhoods of highly concentrated poverty have suffered under a powerful stigma of crime fear that influences almost all aspects of economic and social life from the unwillingness of retail enterprises to open in such neighborhoods even when federal welfare transfers assure a profitable market for at least some essentials (like groceries) to the willingness of the police to assume that virtually anyone of the right age and gender on the street is involved in gangs and crime. In many respects this stigma has now replaced (and arguably reproduced) the stigma once associated with non-White racial status in American (and especially "Blackness"). The other side of this equation is the huge "pass" middle class Americans give neighborhoods that are coded as middle class (where most people have jobs and a plurality of them, at least, are white. For many individual "consumers", and for the businesses that serve them, these neighborhoods signify safety and security, places where violent crime, if it happens at all, is an aberrant event created by the penetration of outsiders.

Of course that kind of thinking is a textbook example of what sociologists since the mid-20th century have called the "ecological fallacy," the false presumption that a statistical portrait of a place gives you an understanding of the individuals who occupy that place. The irony is that while violent crime is far less of a risk than many people imagine, those kinds of violent crime that people may fear the most, stranger abductions and murders, often for sexual purposes, may be the part of that risk least able to be strategically avoided through ecological discrimination in residential and commercial life.

A terrible crime here in the United Kingdom (where I am spending this Hogmanay), illustrates these themes (read the latest coverage by Steven Morris in the Guardian). The Monday before Christmas, 25 year old Joanna Yeates, a landscape architect with a close family and recently living with her boyfriend went missing in Bristol, a city of around 450 thousand (in a met area of more than a million). The case quickly capture media attention in a society almost as crime focused as the US. Her parents made a public appeal for help. When her frozen body was found Christmas morning on the edge of a street in a suburban area about three miles from her home the palpable horror in the country cut through the holiday frenzy.

Today, just a day before the Hogmanay holiday (New Years Eve to those of you reading outside of Scotland), the Avon and Somerset Police announced the arrest of a suspect, Chris Jeffries, her landlord and a slightly flamboyant retired English teacher at the local equivalent of a community college. The coverage of this makes clear that the police consider him a suspect rather than a witness, a judgment that could come undone, police at least in the US have a long history of focusing on weird suspects who may come across to jurors as alien in some respect and thus possibly a murderer.

The coverage now carries the predictable but nonetheless illuminating statements of other neighbors who can add to their shock at having one of their neighbors murdered, the shock that one of their neighbors, perhaps this very well established figure in the block, might be the murderer.

A resident, Tony Buss, 51, said that one of the cars towed away by police belonged to Jefferies. "Today's news is a shock and surprise," he said.

Another neighbour, a 26-year-old man who did not want to be named, said: "It's all been pretty scary, especially for my girlfriend as I'm away most of the week so it's been pretty scary for her to be home alone. We chose the area of Clifton to live in because we thought it was safe."

Note especially the language of about neighborhood and crime risk. "We chose the area of Clifton to live in because we thought it was safe." Its a nice one line summary of just how important crime fear is in how middle class people live even in the UK. Even if the case against Jeffries holds up it may not do much to alter the willingness of people to invest in the ecological fallacy. When terrible crimes are committed by the residents of "safe" neighborhoods there is an automatic presumption that it reflects a deep psychological flaw in the killer rather than anything about the neighborhood. This is indeed one of the origins of the serial killer as a crucial folk devil of late modern crime fear. The crimes they commit may be gruesome, but it is the threat they pose to the whole ecological crime security strategy of so many middle class citizens in both the US and the UK that makes them monsters.

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